Bear gives caretakers warm fuzzies

Published May 5, 2007

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS - If it were anywhere other than the office of a wildlife park, the anxious bawling emanating from an open door up the hallway would seem alarming.

Instead, the cries were drawing people for a closer look.

The fussing came from a pet crate on the floor of Art Yerian's office. Yerian, manager of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, had a special visitor.

He opened the crate door, releasing a bounding, leaping little tornado, reminiscent of the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.

But this furry creature has an origin much closer to home.

The sturdy baby black bear cub scurrying around Yerian's floor was a temporary charge for Yerian and his wildlife care supervisor, Susan Lowe.

Left as an orphan at the Sumter County Humane Society in mid April, the cub was brought to Homosassa by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The agency is investigating how the little bear landed at an animal shelter. Possessing such an animal without permits is illegal. Black bears are a protected species and taking them from the wild also is not permitted.

The cub landed at the park because agency officials knew the crew at Homosassa Springs has raised bear cubs before.

The two adult bears at the park were orphaned cubs rescued by the state five years ago. When Yerian and the park staff got them, they were just a couple of weeks old.

The little cub - park officials intentionally did not give it a name other than Baby Bear -was probably closer to 2 months old when Yerian and Lowe took over its care. That was about two weeks ago when the bear was just 11 pounds of pent-up bounce. Now, pushing nearly 20 pounds, the bear is almost too much to handle.

When he tops 25 pounds, they will have to cage him according to state wildlife rules.

"He's been growing like a weed," Yerian said. "And his jaw pressure is getting better."

Both Yerian and Lowe have the scratches and bite marks to prove it.

The brother and sister cubs five years ago had each other for wrestling partners but this baby uses its humans as playmates. As Yerian talked about the little bear, it was busy tugging on Yerian's pant cuffs and nibbling on his fingers.

When the play got too rough, Yerian would blow a sudden burst of breath into the cub's face to back it off. The baby would be undaunted and begin bounding around the office again, frequently bumping into furniture with a very solid thump to its head.

Lowe, whose husband is local veterinarian Mark Lowe, has taken the bear home most nights since its arrival. She said she has watched the little male go from barely walking to bravely climbing cabinets in her house.

"There is no rest. But you want him to get his exercise," she said. "It's like having a 2-year-old in the house. You're constantly watching."

The couple's hunting dogs took one look at the cub and decided they wanted no part of him, she said.

Yerian's dachshunds had a very different reaction. They immediately started to play with the little bear when Yerian took him home. That was before it started putting on pounds, and the bear was smaller than Yerian's dogs.

"My weenies loved it," he said.

The small bear may ultimately be heading for the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter, a facility that allows its rescued wildlife to teach valuable lessons about conservation.

He will not be displayed at the Homosassa park, only fostered there for as long as the bear needs that help. But its popularity is already huge as the group of employees and volunteers peering into Yerian's doorway demonstrated.

As much fun as the little cub seems at such a young age, state wildlife officials strongly discourage anyone from having close contact with black bears.

Adult black bears can be dangerous. Males can weigh more than 450 pounds. While there have been no documented bear attacks in Florida, black bear attacks have been reported in other states, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Friday afternoon, state officers were forced to euthanize an adult black bear that had wandered into a Jacksonville neighborhood. The bear had been moved away from neighborhoods repeatedly and posed a threat to human safety. A spokeswoman for the FWCC said the bear had probably been fed in the past.

When bears get used to people, they sometimes must be put to sleep to keep people safe, spokeswoman Karen Parker said.

Because the baby bear has been bonding with people, it cannot be released into the wild.

Lowe and Yerian realize that their time with the little black bundle of energy is short. Just 15 minutes out of his cage, the little guy was already exhausted and was dozing back in his carrier.

Lowe sees such caregiving experiences as among her favorite parts of her job.

"It's just a tremendous animal to be able to work with," she said. "This guy is off to a great start."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.