There's a bear in the woods...and it's not the bear (film attached))
Last Thursday arrived sunny and unseasonably cold here in Miami. My morning flew by in a flurry of surgeries and appointments and I was making good time. I had only two procedures left when my cell rang with the urgent message: “Bear on the way. Better be here before the media if you want in on the action.”
That was my boyfriend, intrepid veterinary surgeon Dr. Marc Wosar at Miami Veterinary Specialists. As the only veterinarian in South Florida with any experience treating bears, his hospital was the one they called when the second Florida Black Bear seen in Miami-Dade County in 30 years collided with an automobile on the Turnpike.
The Florida Turnpike is a long stretch of road that traverses most of our state’s North-South land mass. Throughout most of its length (further north), Black Bears happen. More than 2,400 reportedly reside in our state. They tend only very rarely to venture down into our parts. Consequently, the media was all over this.
Five networks, including Animal Planet and one Spanish language crew, stood vigil with cameras hoisted and ready as a bevy of veterinarians, veterinary technicians and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission types circled the pen-trailer the latter crew had brought him in with.
Meanwhile, I had put my last two cases of the morning on indefinite hold so that I could add my comparably meager camcorder to the mix of lenses trained on the injured bear.
When I arrived, the bear was laying immobile in a corner within the dark and roomy trailer’s interior. As the Fish and Wildlife people prepped their tranq gun with Telazol, the cameras easily edged me out. Within fifteen minutes he was down and the action underway. Only Animal Planet and I were allowed complete access to the events that followed.
I've produced a seven-minute [very amateur] film for all of you who require a visual to accompany this prose.
This young, male bear was muzzled, laid out on a gurney and rolled into the hospital where he was fully examined. A gaping wound on his right haunch was the obvious injury. This was flushed and manually examined for evidence of foreign bodies. A physical exam revealed a sickening instability of his forearm.
After the bear was intubated (a lengthy process due to the inadequacy of our canine equipment) he was wheeled into radiology where he received an IV catheter...and his revealing pictures.
His right radius and ulna were both fractured in the middle of their shafts. Some comminution of the fracture was evident, as was the presence of bird shot--evidence that the bear had been treated to a pot-shot from a not-so-friendly human at some point. But this was a fixable injury. All would be made well, right?
While all the docs were running around looking for the right sized plates to treat this injury with, and the media glomming onto every word Dr. Wosar said, the Florida Fish and Wildlife folks were starting to hem and haw. Not all of them, mind you, just the ones in touch with the powers-that-be up in Tallahassee.
First they pronounced the dreaded word, “euthanasia.” They then asked Dr. Wosar if he could fix the bear so he could be discharged and released the same day. Of course, medical recommendations being what they are, Dr. Wosar explained that his personal recommendation was to intern the animal in a safe location for six weeks. But if the political decision must be made to release the animal immediately he admitted that the bear would have an excellent chance of recovery.
Yet a few phone calls later, the Fish and Wildlife folks pulled the plug. None of it is going to happen, fellas...it’s all over. The bear is going back and that’s the end of it.
Apparently, Florida may have more than 2,400 bears in its custody but, legally speaking, every single one of them belongs to the state. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is their legal guardian.
It seems Florida has developed a strict stance of non-intervention regarding the Florida Black Bear, something every single one of the Florida Fish and Wildlife employees present pled ignorance to (and I believe them based on their red faces). Even the simple act of transporting a Florida Black Bear to a medical facility is “illegal” according to the mysterious phone caller, presumably a Tallahassee representative of all us Floridians.
It seems the bears can only receive interventions related to their capture and relocation in the event they prove a “nuisance.” They can be scooped up and meticulously counted as roadkill, but the rare merely injured animal cannot be treated under Florida law.
Not so for the Florida Panther, for example, a species which has received legal protections under the Endangered Species Act. An injured panther is considered an opportunity for saving the world. An injured bear is deemed one less dumpster diver.
So you understand a little better, my admittedly limited research on this issue tells an interesting story: The Florida Black Bear is a sub-species of the American Black Bear, which is the only species of bear that’s believed to have evolved on our continent. Sixteen sub-species have subsequently developed, primarily the result of extreme genetic segregation due to human encroachment.
Although the Louisiana Black Bear is designated as “threatened,” and two neighboring states’ bear populations legally protected (Texas and Mississippi) due to the visible similarity of their sub-species, the nearby states of Florida, Alabama and Arkansas offer no such legal niceties for their bears.
In Florida, a “threatened” status for our sub-species was sought and denied protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1998 and 2004 “due to its adequate protection and management by the state of Florida.” [Reference.] It seems that 2,400 bears is a politically expedient number for a state in which the bear is feared and reviled as a “nuisance.”
Hence the sentence that was handed down on last Thursday’s bear, who we named “Turnpike” for his fateful run-in on that road.
This animal, clearly suffering a life-threatening injury, was fortunate enough to find itself in the care of the only veterinary surgeon in the lower half of the state who has plated bear bones with similar injuries. The bear is already under sedation. Life-saving surgery is easily within his grasp.
The surgeon has waived all fees, in case financial difficulties play into the state’s decision making process. From a basic animal welfare standpoint, he advocates for euthanasia in place of non-treatment, explaining that a bear accustomed to bottom-feeding from Miami-Dade County commercial dumpsters could not possibly survive in the wilds of the Everglades (where Fish and Wildlife intend to take him) without a functional forearm. He’d die of hunger...and in pain.
Nonetheless, the nameless, faceless representative of the great state of Florida remains firm on the other end of the phone line: No intervention on this bear’s behalf. He goes back to a “protected” area in the ‘Glades where no cement-mixing plant’s copious garbage can afford him an easy kill.
What would you say to the Fish and Wildlife man with the badge and the gun who’s physically repossessed your patient?
If you were me, you’d point out the lingering, salivating presence of the news media while harping on the the obvious suffering of this animal. You’d raise the issue of animal cruelty, regardless of species. You’d mention the animal lawyers waiting in the wings to tackle this case. You’d try to bribe the head guy to bring back the bear after all the cameras were gone for a hush-hush surgical intervention. Maybe, even, you’d toy with the idea of sneaking in a syringe-full of Euthasol before the IV catheter was extracted.
As the truck pulled out, sedated bear in its bowels, I had to take note of the obvious: This wasn’t about medicine. It wasn’t about welfare. No “adequate protections” were being afforded this bear. No, this was all about our very human politics...and the Tallahassee contention that bears are nasty creatures likely to eat your garbage and rip your lungs out as look at you.
2,400 Florida Black Bears. 19 million human Floridians.
As I dejectedly drove back to my waiting patients that Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t help but think: Yes, there’s a bear in the woods...but it isn’t the bear. It’s us.
How does this story make you feel? Contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission with your comments. Please reference the “Miami-Dade County Black Bear” in your subject line.