On Witnessing the Florida bear Hunt

By Shirlene Stucky

Shirlene lives near Orlando, Florida, and participates in events organized by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and Speak Up Wekiva, among other organizations.

Bryan Wilson, of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, with a banner on an overpass in Orlando. Photo by Carla Wilson

Even weeks after the Florida bear hunt came to a bloody end, animal-protection advocates were having difficulty eating, sleeping, and functioning normally. Opposition to the hunt — the first such massacre in decades, organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — was fierce. We fought it long and hard. We attended meetings, held rallies, and organized statewide protests that were covered by various media outlets and involved hundreds of participants. The volunteer group Speak Up Wekiva, led by Chuck O’Neal, sought an injunction to stop the hunt — a request that was denied by Circuit Judge George Reynolds — and filed a lawsuit against the FWC, which is still pending, to prevent future bear hunts in the state.

An October 2008 Naples Daily News article headlined “State report suggests hunting of Florida black bears could resume” was the first that activists at the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida had heard of the possibility of a hunt being planned, according to Carla Wilson, who coordinates ARFF’s efforts in the central part of the state.

“We started attending FWC meetings, bear workshops, alerting members to contact FWC and their representatives opposing the hunt, and writing letters to the editor in papers throughout Florida,” Wilson said. “As the hunt got closer, we held peaceful rallies outside every FWC office in Florida, all on one day, rallies outside FWC bear meetings throughout the state, and hung banners over interstates, all getting extensive and positive statewide media [coverage], calling more attention to the issue.”

It was clear early on, however, that the FWC would implement the hunt, beginning on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, despite the fact that 75 percent of the calls, emails, and letters the agency received from the general public voiced opposition to the slaughter.

“Stop The Florida Bear Hunt was formed on June 24, 2015, which is the day the hunt was approved,” Adam Sugalski, ARFF’s founder and campaign director, said. “Our group is dedicated to fighting this hunt in 2016 and beyond. We will not rest until our black bears are safe from hunters.”

Activists Dan and Nancy Kon coordinated hunt-monitoring efforts, placing people at check stations to take photos of the dead bears and submit hourly corpse counts to ensure that numbers were reported accurately. The Kons did the near impossible, organizing a team of 122 monitors and volunteers, who answered phones. With 3,778 bear-hunt permits issued by the FWC, we expected it to be bad, but we never could have imagined the bloodbath that was to come. On the first day, hunters in the panhandle killed 112 bears — three times the quota of 40 that the FWC had set for that area. Meanwhile, in central Florida, some check stations were so backed up that impatient hunters left without having their trophy kills weighed. The tally for the first day in central Florida was 139 dead bears, a number that far exceeded the FWC’s quota of 100 for that region.

Broken-hearted check-station monitors, who asked that their last names not be published, witnessed firsthand the horrors of the massacre.

A volunteer named Melanie, who answered phones, overheard calls reporting lactating females, cubs, and a nearly blind “grandfather bear,” who’d been something of a local legend, all being killed by hunters. One of the first calls Melanie took, from the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area, came from a woman who had just killed a young, lactating female, leaving her cubs to die alone.

“Another call,” Melanie said, “came from a monitor who had just overheard a hunter bragging about ripping the cubs off the mama bear’s teats, while another posted on Facebook that he buried live cubs in a hole.”

“The revolting smell of blood, a dead sow, milk spilling from her teats into her blood, a gutted cub — these are the things I vowed to never forget. I cry every time I remember the massacre,” a check-station monitor named Nikki said.

One dead cub killed during the hunt weighed only 46 pounds.

A victim of the Floria bear hunt.
Photo by Thomas Allison

“The bear hunt left me with horrid memories that will never disappear,” a monitor named Astevia said. “Before that awful day, I had never seen black bears in person. To my surprise, I reported the first bear killed during this massacre. This was a lactating female whose breasts were still dripping milk. When I finished the phone call, I went to the back of the station and cried. I mentioned to the FWC’S law-enforcement employees about how that was a lactating mother and that bear was not supposed to be hunted. They ignored what we said, and that girl left with her bear. I still mourn the unnecessary demise of this mama bear.”

The bear hunt was called off by the FWC on the second day, Sunday, Oct. 25, as the body count climbed to 295, nearing the agency’s quota of 320. That number, however, did not reflect the number of bears reported by hunters to have been injured and left in the woods, slain motherless or unborn cubs, poached bears, or those bears whose lifeless bodies were not presented at check stations.

Slain bears arrive at a check station. Photo by Thomas Allison

While the actual number of bears slaughtered in October 2015 might never be known for sure, the FWC later updated its total of slain bears to 304, including 36 lactating females.

A week after the hunt, on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, following memorials in various locales, a ceremony was held at Lake Eola, in Orlando. It was attended by roughly 200 people. After honoring the slaughtered bears and all the activists who protested and monitored the hunt, a group of children led us to a coffin where we left pictures, flowers, gifts, and pieces of our hearts. We signed wooden bears sculpted by Jim Bronzo that were to be presented at a FWC meeting in Tallahassee.

Left to right: Bryan Wilson (Animal Rights Foundation of Florida), Matt Schwartz (South Florida Wildlands Association), Chuck O’Neal (Speak Up Wekiva), Doris O’Neal, Adam Sugalski (Stop the Florida Bear Hunt), Nancy Kon, Dan Kon, and Fred Bohler (former Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission bear-response agent) at a memorial for slaughtered bears.
Photo by Barry Vaught

Later, we received some good news. Speak Up Wekiva Director Chuck O’Neal announced his intention to run for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He authored the Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act, which was introduced by state Sen. Darren Soto and is being cosponsored by state Rep. Mark Pafford.

Many of us have been taught by the community-building nonprofit organization 1000 Friends of Florida how to lobby, and we plan to get more one-on-one training in that area. Our work will continue, as the state’s plans for a 2016 bear hunt are already in the works — as is a plan to delist Florida panthers under the Endangered Species Act, so that monsters like FWC Vice Chair Aliese Priddy can add more trophies to their Halls of Dead Things.

And the insanity continues. On Nov. 14, at FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron’s Green Glades Ranch, in Weston, Florida, Gov. Rick Scott received an award from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation for his conservation efforts. We were there to protest that incredible insult.

In the weeks after the bear hunt came to an end, two cubs were hit by cars and one was found floating in the Suwannee River. More such tragedies are expected, as cubs come out of hiding to find food. That reality continues to break our hearts each and every day.

Shirlene Stucky lives near Orlando, Florida, and participates in events organized by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and Speak Up Wekiva, among other organizations.


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