Florida’s Winnie the Pooh deathfest

A Florida black bear scratches his back on a cypress tree in the Florida Everglades. Nearly 300 bears were killed in the state-authorized hunt last weekend.
A Florida black bear scratches his back on a cypress tree in the Florida Everglades. Nearly 300 bears were killed in the state-authorized hunt last weekend. Sun-Sentinel

Last weekend was not a good time to be either: a) a bear and/or b) the English language, both of which came in for some very rough treatment in Florida.

Sitting between two extremely dead furry critters, Rick Sajko of Valrico seemed happier than Elmer Fudd after finally bagging Bugs Bunny.

“I’ve been waiting 20 some-odd years to kill a bear in Florida,” Sajko beamed before a gaggle of reporters. Well, dreams are a wonderful thing, especially when they come true. And although Sajko had killed bears in Pennsylvania and Canada, the thrill of shooting a bear on Florida soil had eluded him.

That was, of course, the weekend of the grand Florida bear hunt authorized by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which raked in some $300,000 in hunting licenses.

The hunt was so eagerly anticipated that the commission issued 3,778 licenses to knock off up to 320 beasts out of a guesstimated population of about 3,300 bears. The FWC approved the hunt without knowing the exact number of bears. However, we do know there are now 298 fewer of them.

With that many hunters in hot pursuit of Smokey, it didn’t take very long for the body count to hit 298 after only two days of blasting away before the FWC ended the carnage. Somewhere in the bush a lot of bears were probably wondering, “Whew! What the heck was that all about? And has anybody seen Teddy Ruxpin?”

Florida’s bears found themselves literally in the cross hairs because since 2013 there have been five nonfatal attacks on people across the state. Not quite a Stephen King-esque epidemic of bears behaving badly. Four of those incidents involved attacks by bears that were in proximity to unsecured garbage containers. One victim was a woman who believed she was a spiritual bear-whisperer who could hand-feed a bear without risk. She was misinformed.

You have greater odds of being shot in a road rage incident for not properly signaling a left-hand turn in Florida than being set upon by Fozzie Bear.

In advance of the Winnie the Pooh death-trap fest, FWC received 40,000 emails, 75 percent of which objected to the Baloo blood lust. And yet the hunt went on.

State officials characterized the Gentle Ben bull’s-eye extravaganza as a “harvest,” a term that probably came as something of a surprise to the 298 bears who found themselves on the way to the taxidermist.

And then there was FWC chairman Brian Yablonski, a utility lobbyist, who offered up one of the odder observations about the weekend Paddington Bear carnage. “Hunters, they partake in this (hunt) with reverence and humility,” Yablonski intoned.

Please spare us all this channeling of Lewis and Clark. Considering bears have not been hunted in 21 years in Florida, these creatures were completely oblivious about their fate — until it was too late. In fact one hunter got his permit and had to go no farther than his back yard to knock off a bear that had become a regular visitor to the property.

Hunting bears from the porch, staking out a hunting area well ahead of time to be sure of a kill, and taking on a defenseless animal with high-powered weaponry are not exactly Jeremiah Johnson moments.

Reverence and humility?

If the hunters stalking the bears were truly engaged in reverence and humility, the “harvest” ought to have been a fair sporting fight with the outdoorsmen required to kill their prey with their bare hands. You would think if you had waited two decades to kill a bear in Florida, you would want to experience the full joy of a hands-on death throes moment — one way or the other.

As recently as 2012, bears were still included on the state’s imperiled species list. After last weekend, the designation still seems right on target.

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