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Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction

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Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction

Jun 13, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Craig Pittman
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Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction
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The Florida black bear isn't as large as its Western relative and tends to shy away from humans — but a legislator claimed some have attacked people while on crack, via FWC.

Florida produces a lot of wild animal stories. I mean stories about animals that are WI-I-I-I-LD.

Pythons battle alligators for supremacy in the Everglades! Giant snails proliferate after they’re smuggled into Miami by a religious cult that thought drinking the mucus would make them healthy! Two idiots stuff three endangered Key deer into their car and the cops stop them for a busted taillight — because one of the deer kicked it out!

There was another such story last week. A bear was swimming across the St. Johns River when an alligator popped up and tried to take a bite. The bear swatted it away. Then a SECOND gator tried to make a meal out of Yogi. The bear just pushed by it, then climbed up on the riverbank.

The kayaker who filmed this round of WWE (Wild Wildlife Encounters) told TV station WKMG that the bear seemed “kind of annoyed.”

This is also the way I picture Florida’s bears reacting to the news that House Bill 87 has been sent to the governor for him to sign or veto.

It shouldn’t have gotten this far. Yet it passed both the House and the Senate and, according to the House website, was “presented to governor on Friday, June 7, 2024, 2:57 PM.”

What happens next is up to Gov. Ron “I Support Law & Order But I’m Raising Money For That Convicted Felon Who Made Fun of Me” DeSantis.

The official title of this bill is “Taking of Bears,” but I call it the “Stand Your Ground Against Hairy Mammals Bill.” It’s where the right to bear arms beats unarmed bears.

HB 87 says it’s OK to shoot a bear if you feel it’s threatening you, your family, your pets or your property. You won’t face any penalty, even if it turns out the bear was merely passing by on its way to a pic-a-nic.

State law already allows you to shoot any animal that attacks you, whether it be bear, gator, or Rottweiler. This is one of those cases of politicians solving a problem that doesn’t exist. Those are MUCH easier to deal with than actual problems such as high property insurance rates.

Plus, it riles people up.

Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction
Film director Arix Zalace, via subject

“Fear and anger sell,” said director Arix Zalace, who’s been working on a documentary about Florida’s black bears and opposes the bill.

Environmental groups are organizing letter-writing campaigns to urge the governor to veto the bill by June 22.

I’m not sure a bunch of identically worded emails will be persuasive, but here are three problems with this bill.

I’ll start with the most obvious: HB87 based on a boguness.

Bears breaking bad

The bill’s sponsored by Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Fantasyland. On his X account, Shoaf said he’s “fighting to conserve everything that makes our state such a special place to live.”

That apparently does not include bears.

I wrote about him last year when he tried to sneak a liquified natural gas plant past his Port St. Joe constituents from which his family would benefit. When folks found out, they forced the company behind the plant to withdraw its plans.

Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction
State Rep. Jason Shoaf. Source: Florida House

Shoaf drew further embarrassing coverage when a British newspaper reported about his bear-killing bill. The story quoted him telling his fellow lawmakers that HB 87 wasn’t intended for Florida’s usually shy bears.

Instead, it’s for the bears that are breaking bad.

“We’re talking about the ones that are on crack, and they break your door down, and they’re standing in your living room growling and tearing your house apart,” Shoaf told the House Infrastructure Strategies Committee on Jan. 30.

Lest you think this was a slip of tongue, he said it again.

“When you run into one of these crack bears,” he said, “you should be able to shoot it, period. And you shouldn’t have to pause or be afraid you’re gonna get arrested or harassed or pay fines. That’s just crazy.”

The newspaper that first reported these crack-a-lacking comments, The Guardian, added that its reporter “was unable to find a documented incident of any of Florida’s estimated population of 4,050 black bears having ingested crack.”

I’m a curious fellow, so I watched all three House committee meetings at which Shoaf talked about HB 87. He didn’t mention crack bears until the last one, but in every hearing he was peddling some other load of malarkey. Someone from PolitiFact should’ve followed him around to do the “Well, actually …” commentary.

“In North Florida, we are inundated with black bears,” he told the House Agriculture, Conservation, and Resilience Committee in December. “Since they’ve been protected, their population has exploded.”

Well, actually … the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are 4,000 or so bears. That’s how many biologists estimated were roaming the woods in 2015, the year the state held its last bear hunt.

It’s the population of humans that’s exploded. Rapid development is flushing the bears out of places they’ve always lived.

“They’re just getting pushed out at such a quick rate they end up finding new places to go,” one wildlife expert told the Northwest Florida Daily News in 2022. “That’s why people are having more negative interactions with them.”

Yet Shoaf’s calling for killing them if they so much as set a paw in your yard. He explained that it’s a matter of life or death, telling committee members that those bears “are in our homes, they are in our garages, they are attacking people.”

Here’s a fun fact that this Panhandle Pinocchio may not know: The FWC maintains a table on its website showing “documented incidents of physical contact between a person and a black bear in Florida,” i.e. bear attacks. The table shows only 15 in the past five years, and only two were in Florida’s northwestern counties.

I called the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office because Shoaf had identified Franklin as ground zero for bear conflicts. They told me zero was the number of bear attacks on people there.

I checked several Panhandle newspapers for stories on bear-on-human violence. I found none. I did find a story in the Gulf County News that reported wildlife officials had met with county officials last year because of “the growing number of bear encounters in residential locations.”

The story said folks in that county “made it clear that they do not seek a policy of harming the bears but prefer humane trapping and relocation to ensure both human and animal safety.”

That’s the opposite of what Shoot-em-up Shoaf is aiming for.

But wait, we have yet to hit the bottom of the bear-rel.

The yarn unraveled

During the bill’s second and third committee stops, Shoaf told a story about a man he said had personal experience with what happens if you dare shoot a bear.

He said a firefighter from Port St. Lucie had confronted a bear in his garage or carport (it changed from one committee to the next). The firefighter kept a gun on top of his refrigerator, Shoaf said, so he grabbed it and fired, killing the bear.

“He was arrested and it took him a year and a half to clear his name,” Shoaf told his colleagues.

That’s quite a yarn. But when I started pulling, it unraveled pretty quickly.

I checked the newspaper in Port St. Lucie, TCPalm.com. I couldn’t find any story about a firefighter busted for besting a bear in a quick-draw contest.

I contacted the outdoors writer there, Ed Killer. Ed has written his share of stories about bears, but he said he’d never heard of that one. He checked with the reporters who cover crime. They hadn’t either.

Then I contacted the public information officer for the St. Lucie County Fire Department. She checked around and said nobody’d heard of it either.

Once again, facts blow up Shoaf’s justification for his blow-’em-away bill.

I tried repeatedly to reach Shoaf. He never called me back.

Poachers’ delight

Prior to filing this bill, Shoaf called for a revival of the bear hunt that went so badly nine years ago. But for some folks, bear hunting season is never over, no matter what the law says.

“We have a poaching problem in Florida,” said Katrina Shadix, leader of an Oviedo-based organization called Bear Warriors United. “People are killing bears with impunity.”

Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction
Katrina Shadix of Bear Warriors United, via subject

A tip from Shadix led the FWC to arrest nine poachers killing bears in the Ocala National Forest. Their videos showed packs of dogs chasing bears, sometimes driving them up trees, sometimes attacking the bears directly.

Their eventual penalties were all fairly light. Florida law doesn’t treat poaching like the serious crime it is.

Now here’s a bill that would give them a “get out of jail free” card.

The bill requires anyone who kills a bear to report it to the FWC and it forbids keeping the meat or any trophies. Shoaf said that would discourage poachers.

But let’s say a poacher kills several bears, takes what he or she wants from the carcasses and makes no reports. Then someone catches the poacher with one of those dead bears.

“Oh yeah, I was juuuust about to call it in,” the poacher could say. “That monster was on my property roaring like a lion and I was so s-s-scared, I shot him.”

Boom! That’s it. Prosecutors can’t charge the poacher with anything.

Also, HB 87 puts no limit on how many times someone can claim to be killing in self-defense. Picture it now: “Well, he’s shot 27 bears, but he said he was in fear every time, so we can’t do anything.”

Now let’s turn to the last problem – the one I call “Save the Humans.”

Ready, fire, aim!

Remember in 2019, when the FWC told everyone that it’s okay to shoot every iguana you see?

One of the first headlines to appear afterward said, “Florida man hunting iguanas misses and shoots nearby pool guy instead.” Fortunately, the hunter was packing a BB gun, not Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum, so the wound wasn’t life threatening.

Now think about the potential for human mayhem if this bill becomes law.

“It’s an incredibly dangerous bill — dangerous to the public,” said Zalace, the filmmaker. “How many people have the skill to kill a bear?”

Bill that says it’s OK to shoot bears ‘breaking bad’ fashioned in fiction
The real problem: unsecured trash cans. (Photo via FWC)

He reminded me of something that happened in Sanford just last year. An off-duty Seminole County sheriff’s deputy claimed a mama bear near his home had charged him and his dog. He pulled his pistol and fired until he’d emptied the magazine.

The deputy, a trained marksman, hit this moving target only three times. The wounded animal ran off with its cubs. When biologists tracked it down, it still wasn’t dead, so they euthanized it. (The deputy, by the way, faced no charges, which undercuts Shoaf’s main argument.)

If this shooting had happened in one of our sprawling suburbs, I fear we’d have seen something similar to what happened to that pool boy, but with a more lethal outcome.

Shadix, Zalace and every other bear advocate I spoke to told me the real problem here isn’t the bears. It’s us careless humans who leave garbage where the bears can get to it and fail to secure our pet food.

If our governor still signs this boneheaded bear bill into law, I think we should demand the Legislature pass a corollary measure.

We should allow every citizen to line up like in “Airplane!” to take a single slap at any Florida politician without any consequence. I think every member who voted for HB 87 deserves a smack that’s just as hard as the one that swimming bear gave those presumptuous gators.