‘I saved a bear from drowning’

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.

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