This Florida poaching problem seems almost un-bear-able

Enthusiastic bear fan pushed for bigger penalties for poachers

May 26, 2022 7:00 am

A Florida black bear is pictured in a tree. Credit: FWC

June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season, or as I like to call it, “Mother Nature’s annual reminder that Florida is trying to kill us.” Hurricanes making landfall, shark bites, sinkholes, lightning strikes — we lead the nation in all of these deadly categories.

Yet people keep flocking here like lemmings, trying to fill up every last green spot on the map.

Can you blame Florida for this hostility toward humans, considering all the awful things we’ve done to the state? Our manatees are starving, our waterways are struggling with toxic algae, and human-caused pollution is at the root of both.

One of the worst examples of humans’ inhumanity to nature popped up last week in an Ocala courtroom. Before I tell you about it, a warning: If you have a weak constitution, you may want to sit down. It will churn your stomach — and not just because of all the donuts involved.

But this is also a heartening story because of how this crime came to light. It shows how one very determined person — in this instance, a Florida woman who’d been badly injured — can make a difference for the environment.

Florida black bear: Credit: Tim Donovan, FWC

First, though, I need to explain something to you newcomers: In addition to panthers, alligators, and manatees, Florida’s list of native species includes black bears.

They’re highly intelligent animals with a great sense of smell. Picture the cartoon Yogi, but without the green tie, porkpie hat, and penchant for pilfering food from park visitors.

Yogi would tell you that being a bear in Florida is no pic-a-nic.

Florida’s bears are smaller than grizzlies, reaching a maximum of only 750 pounds (compared to more than 1,000 for their Western relatives). Their diet is mostly berries, acorns, and insects. They once roamed all over the state, but their population dwindled to just a few hundred by the 1970s. That’s when the state listed them as threatened.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists estimate that around 4,000 bears now roam our forests and swamps. That’s fewer than the number of manatees, but more than the number of panthers.

Yet bears were taken off the state’s imperiled species list in 2012.

That’s when the trouble started.

‘Don’t hurt my little teddy bear!’

Our bears don’t generate as many headlines as our gators, which every spring show up looking for love in all the wrong places.

Most bear-related headlines concern how, like a reverse Goldilocks, they wind up somewhere unexpected — swinging in a hammock, for instance, or chilling in a hot tub.

The one time our bears made international news was 2015. In a series of incidents, bears attacked and mauled five people. The bears were hungry and had wandered into areas where they found people — and loose garbage can lids. (One Central Florida man, claiming he was “the Bear Whisperer,” had been feeding them by hand — until one of his neighbors was attacked.)

The bears began rooting in garbage cans because the state was letting people harvest their preferred food, saw palmetto berries, from Florida’s 37 state forests. The berry-pickers paid $10 for the right to collect an unlimited amount and sell them to companies marketing them as a questionable cure for prostate problems.

Although the state halted the unlimited berry-picking in state forests, the fish and wildlife commission decided the best solution was to shoot a lot of bears. They decided to hold the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years.

Tens of thousands of people wrote in to urge the commissioners not to hold a hunt. When I asked chairman Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer, why the board was ignoring the public’s wishes, he suffered what my cracker grandmother used to call “a conniption fit.”

“Those people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Corbett snapped. “Most of those people have never been in the woods. They think we’re talking about teddy bears: ‘Oh Lord, don’t hurt my little teddy bear!’ Well, these bears are dangerous.” (Amid the subsequent uproar over his comments, he resigned.)

You could argue that the hunt was wildly successful — from the hunters’ point of view.

Wildlife officials shut down the hunt after the second day because hunters had killed so many bears so fast. They were already close to racking up what was supposed to be the week-long quota. The final tally was 304 bears shot dead — including 36 mother bears, still lactating.

However, because the hunt proved so unpopular with the public, you could say the black bears gave the agency a black eye. The commission has yet to schedule a second hunt.

Among the folks galvanized into action by that misbegotten hunt, though, was a woman from Central Florida town of Geneva named Katrina Shadix.

‘Beary best regards’

I think it’s fair to say that Shadix, 53, is obsessed with bears.

She signs her emails “Beary Best Regards.” Her Facebook page features pictures of her holding a bear cub named Merlin at a West Virginia bear rehabilitation facility. She runs an organization, which she named Bear Warriors United, that sends free bear-proof straps for garbage can lids to anyone who asks.

Katrina Shadix

Shadix, a onetime medical assistant, told me her activism on behalf of bears got a big push when she was rear-ended in a car crash. The crash messed up her back.

She got a large settlement as a result — $300,000 which, after various expenses, left her with $120,000. She used that to launch her organization, despite her injuries.

“I’m in constant pain but no one knows,” she said. When she speaks at wildlife commission meetings, “I put on a smile and act like nothing’s wrong.”

She had already been part of the throng arguing against the hunt. While the hunt proceeded, she told me, she was supposed to be home recuperating from surgery.

Instead, she said, she strapped on a back brace and with help from a friend tottered out to one of the hunt check stations. She’d missed the dead bears being brought in, she said, but “locked eyes” with a yearling cub that had been orphaned.

“That’s when I made a promise I will do everything in my power to make sure there is never a bear hunt again,” she told me.

Shadix was full of enthusiasm and determination, but she faced a steep learning curve. Sometimes there’s a difference between what feels right for humans versus what’s best for wildlife.

Some of the things she said and did got under the skin (so to speak) of some older environmental activists. She made missteps. She ran for a seat on the Seminole County Commission but lost to the pro-development incumbent.

But she kept plugging away, smiling to hide the pain.

“She’s a terrific advocate,” said Kate McFall, head of the Florida chapter of the Humane Society of the United States. “We need more like her.”

When someone heard about poachers going after bears in the Ocala National Forest, that person passed the tip to Shadix. She said she passed it to the wildlife commission.

The best Christmas present

The poachers posted the evidence of their crimes on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Their videos, taken in the national forest, showed packs of dogs chasing bears, sometimes driving them up trees, sometimes attacking the bears directly.

“This bear thought he could fly,” one poacher, from Union County, wrote on a video of a bear jumping down from a tree, only to be set upon by the pack. The poachers killed at least one bear and skinned it.

They were training the dogs to pursue bears because that made them valuable to hunters in states where such pursuits are legal.

But setting dogs loose on a bear — while featured in the classic Florida book and movie “The Yearling” — is not legal here now. Even during Florida’s bear hunt, the wildlife commission said no to using dogs.

This 1902 political cartoon by Clifford Berryman’s depicts President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunting trip to Mississippi. The cartoon gave the ‘Teddy’ Bear it’s name. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a famous story about Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear that had been tied down, thus launching the “teddy bear” craze. I bet these poachers would have been fine with killing Teddy’s bear. They weren’t big fans of ethical hunting.

Wildlife officers spent 11 months investigating the poachers. They infiltrated the gang, Shadix said. They put a tracking device on one man’s truck. They got GPS locations from the poachers’ phones.

They even got video of three of them digging through a dumpster behind a Jacksonville Krispy Kreme. The dumpster divers were gathering discarded donuts and other pastries to use as bait to lure the bears to their doom. This is not the kind of recycling we need in Florida.

Shadix said wildlife officers passed along monthly updates, as long as she kept quiet. She told me they obtained some crucial evidence when one of the poachers got divorced. His ex-wife told investigators that he had bear meat stashed in his freezer, labeled with a date after the end of the official hunt.

In December 2018, state officials announced the arrest of nine people on charges that ranged from conspiracy to animal cruelty to bear-baiting. Shadix posted on her Facebook page that she was relieved she could talk about the case now, and in all capital letters wrote that the arrests were “THE BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER.”

Four years later, the courts are still grinding through these cases. The ex-wife pleaded guilty in 2020 and agreed to testify against the others. So far, four other defendants have cut deals for probation.

What got my attention last week was No. 6 of the nine defendants, William Tyler “Bo” Wood, 32, of Lake Butler, pleading guilty. His penalty: 364 days behind bars, plus 10 years of probation. He has to pay a hefty fine and (this may hurt the worst) surrender all of those dogs he trained.

This comparatively light sentence came in spite of the fact that, last fall, Wood was convicted in a Utah court of illegally capturing a bear after his dogs chased it to the point of collapse. He didn’t get any jail time in the Utah case, just 18 months of probation.

How’s your stomach doing now? Churning like an off-kilter Maytag?

Dipped in a Krispy Kreme glaze

Shadix told me she’s been tracking poaching cases around the state since starting her organization. She said she shows up in person to witness what happens in court.

If you don’t like how light these penalties are, imagine how angry she’s been.

The first trial she attended, four years ago, was for a Sopchoppy man who admitted to killing five bears. He told the authorities he’d been shooting them because they were eating his corn.

When she learned his penalty would be less than the penalty for littering, Shadix decided that needed to change. The solution, she thought, was to get the Legislature to fix the law.

Yes, that same Legislature that’s been kowtowing to developers every chance it gets and pushing clearly unconstitutional culture-war bills while ignoring real crises. But Shadix was not discouraged.

“I’m a Democrat, but I went to my Republican representative,” she said. “I looked for the most alpha male Republican I could find.”

Republican David Smith is pictured with Democrat Matt Wilhite on the House Floor. Credit: Florida House of Representatives

Her choice, Rep. David Smith, had been a Marine Corps helicopter pilot. He agreed with her that the poachers were getting off too lightly.

If it were up to me, all these poachers would be dipped in that delicious Krispy Kreme honey glaze and locked in a cage with one of their victims. But they say politics is the art of the possible. Smith’s bill merely increased the penalty from $500 to $750 and extended the time hunting licenses could be suspended from one year to three.

This mild boost for bear protection passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law. (For some reason, the Pope did not report this rare pro-environment outcome as a bona fide miracle.)

Yet poaching continues, Shadix said. She’s watching a Collier County case this week involving a Golden Gate Estates man who gunned down a bear cub that people in the neighborhood had affectionately named “Bailey.”

And she said she’s heard reports of a gang killing bears in the Panhandle — not for quote-unquote-sport, but for money. She said certain bear parts can be sold for thousands of dollars to companies that ship them to Asia for use in folk medicine.

Honestly, folks, it doesn’t sound to me like the bears are the big problem here. It’s us silly lemmings, moving into their habitat, building houses, and occasionally shooting at them.

If you choose to live where they live, don’t shoot them. Don’t be surprised if one tries swinging in your hammock from time to time. And no matter what, don’t leave out any pic-a-nic baskets.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.