© The Financial Times Ltd 2016
FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
The Financial Times and its journalism are subject to a self-regulation regime under the FT Editorial Code of Practice.
It was 2008 and I was working as a wildlife biologist on Alligator Point, a peninsula off the Florida Panhandle. On one side is the Gulf of Mexico and on the other is a bay. There are about 5,000 Florida black bears in the state, so there were a lot of encounters with bears in the beachfront community there.
That summer, someone out fishing spotted a bear swimming in the ocean about a mile off shore and contacted us. Over the next two weeks I kept getting reports of him, and hoped that he would move on.
One evening, our dispatcher called and said, “That bear is under somebody’s house.” My team and I arrived to find a 375lb seven- or eight-year-old bear. I could tell from his ear tag that he’d been caught in a trap before, so we weren’t going to have much success trapping him again. I decided to tranquillise him.
The guy working for me took the shot while the bear had his head in a garbage can. The dart hit him in the hindquarters. Usually a bear will go down in about 10 minutes. He wandered across the road that runs down the peninsula and a few cars stopped, which freaked him out. Then he headed towards the bay.
He walked down to the water, got in to about a foot deep and stopped. You could tell he was deciding what to do. As he went a bit deeper, he started stumbling – the drugs were taking effect. That bay is about four miles wide. He was eyeing the other side and I could just tell he was going to swim for it.
I ran out on a dock and took off my shirt. My friend asked me what I was doing and I said, I can’t let him drown. The bear had started swimming out, and I dived in to head him off. At 40 yards from shore, we met. He was dog paddling, and his pupils were dilated – the drugs were kicking in. The water was up to my head. I got in front of him and started splashing him. He reared up on his hind legs – he was probably six and a half feet tall.
I think he was going to try to climb on me to keep from drowning. Black bears are not generally in the business of attacking people. He flailed and I could sense panic. He lost his balance and went under for a second, so I swam around and grabbed the scruff of his neck to hold his head above water. He thrashed about and threw me off but I caught him again. Then somebody tried to come up with a boat and I lost control of him. Finally the boat backed off and I swam with the bear floating on top of me. I eventually got back to where I could touch the bottom. We got a backhoe down there to lift him out of the water. Then we took him to a national forest.
I’d like to say that I was afraid but it didn’t really enter my mind. When you immobilise a bear, you take responsibility for its wellbeing.
After the rescue, The David Letterman Show and The Jay Leno Show called. Around town people called me the bear man. I received a lot of bear stuffed animals and fruit baskets. I even got three or four marriage proposals. A whole slew of people sent me cheques, a couple for $100. I didn’t ever cash them but I thought it was nice. I got letters and emails from people from all over the world.
I like bears because they’re always doing something that surprises you. They are super smart. Their sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound’s. Underneath their fur they are like bodybuilders but they’re not good predators – they’re made for eating fruit and seeds and insects. It’s amazing how dexterous they can be: they can weigh up to 600lb, yet they’re adept at using their claws to eat the tiniest of insects. They have a unique sweet, musky odour, like the saw palmetto plant, because they eat it. It’s not a cologne you’d want to wear but it’s not bad.
In 2013 I moved to North Carolina to become a stewardship manager for the Nature Conservancy. I work more directly with conserving habitat than I do putting my hands on bears.
I miss the bears a lot, though. All the time.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.