In the wake of Florida's most serious bear attack on record, you're probably wondering whether it's safe to be outside — especially in the Seminole County neighborhoods where black-bear sightings are most common.
I live on a street where bears are frequently sighted. Should I walk my dog at night?
Not if you can avoid it, said bear expert John Beecham, who has studied them for more than 40 years.
Bears are more likely to be prowling after the sun goes down.
It's unlikely that the largest land mammal in Florida is hunting you, but it will probably be foraging for food before it holes up for the winter, a denning period that begins in mid-December. They gorge themselves on acorns, berries, fallen fruit and, more frequently, people's garbage.
They don't like to have their meals interrupted, and they aren't dog-lovers.
"They're mortal enemies, and [bears] will defend themselves," said Beecham, past president of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.
So what should I do?
If you're walking after dark or before dawn, bring a bright flashlight. And pay attention.
"The idea is to always be hyperaware of your surroundings," said Mike Orlando, a wildlife biologist and bear specialist with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Don't walk alone. Black-bear attacks are very rare, but walking with a buddy is usually a good idea.
Don't take a stroll when people have their garbage at the curb. Bears have a keen sense of smell and consider edible trash a treasure.
Carry bear spray, a hot-pepper concentrate effective within 25 feet. You can buy bear spray online or at outdoor and camping-supply stores. It costs about $32 at Walmart.
Beecham recommends carrying a radio or other noisemaker that can produce an audible warning to the bear that you're approaching because no one wants a surprise bear encounter. A startled bear might strike because it perceives you to be a threat to itself, its cubs or its food.
What do I do if I have a bear encounter?
It depends. A number of scenarios could occur: You could startle a bear and have little time to react before it attacks. You could see the animal before it spots you. Or you and the bear could eye each other at the same time.
Experts have different advice for those encounters.
What if I startle a bear and it pounces on me without warning?
If that happens, the best strategy is to play dead, Beecham said. If you're playing dead, the bear likely will conclude that you are not a threat and back off. "When the bear perceives the threat is gone, the animal runs away," Beecham said. "But there are no guarantees."
I'm confused. State wildlife officials say not to play dead.
Beecham's advice does seem to conflict with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website, which states that you should not play dead. But the agency's advice is based on a bear encounter — that is, you see a bear and it sees you — but not the rare scenario when you have surprised a bear, it feels threatened and it attacks suddenly. In that case, state wildlife officials deferred to Beecham's advice.
What if I see a bear but it doesn't see me?
Stop and assess the animal's behavior. If the bear hasn't noticed you, back off and move away. If you are carrying bear spray, release the safety just in case you have to use it.
What if the bear sees me?
Be calm. The bear might stand up on its hind legs, but that's not an aggressive action, Beecham said. "He's simply trying to figure out what you are," he added. Stand your ground. Speak to it in a firm voice.
"Say your prayers if you'd like," said bear researcher Stephen Herrero, author of "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance." A black bear will generally avoid confrontation and run away.
But what if it doesn't?
Back away slowly while facing the bear, Beecham said. If the bear starts walking toward you, stand tall. Raise your arms. Shout. "You want to make yourself look like a formidable foe," Beecham said.
What if the bear then attacks?
Fight your hardest and yell for help. This may seem contradict the earlier advice to "play dead" during an attack. But the scenarios are very different, experts say. In this case, the bear has had time to size you up and decided you are prey. In that case, you fight.
Does bear spray work?
Herrero said the spray, containing hot-pepper concentrate, is effective about 80 percent of the time, although it requires great fortitude to stand your ground at a charging, 400-pound bear.
Should I run away?
No, you can't outrun them, Beecham said. "It could see you as prey at that point," he said.
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