Whether it’s Yogi and Boo Boo wandering through neighborhoods, deer feasting on garden veggies, raccoons slipping through the doggie door or squirrels moving into the attic, wildlife and people in Florida share the same space more often than not.
“People and wildlife are living in closer proximity now more than ever,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife, which has a program to help people co-exist with wildlife.
That means many Northeast Florida residents have stories to tell about close encounters with wildlife
Just ask Roger Gannam of Jacksonville.
The morning after Gannam cooked burgers on his backyard grill last August, an uninvited guest showed up at the family’s Barrington Oaks home off Craven Road near Beauclerc Elementary School on the Southside.
A lean black coyote chomped, tugged and shredded chunks of Gannam’s grill cover likely hoping to find some leftovers. Stunned at the sight, Gannam’s wife and 8-year-old daughter watched from safety inside the home as the predator, which in Florida generally weighs about 20 to 35 pounds, tore at the grill cover several minutes before loping away in defeat.
“I’m never going outside again,” said Gannam’s daughter — fear creeping into her voice — as her mother captured the incident on video. In the eight years the family has lived at their home, it was the first time a coyote came calling although raccoons, foxes, armadillos, rabbits, eagles and osprey visit from the woods nearby, Gannam said.
Coyotes roam all 67 counties statewide. A coyote in the backyard might not be routine but it’s not uncommon.
“We figured it was just passing through. … however, I’m not so sure,” said Gannam, who believes the coyote is back after he heard “a very distinctive barking, whining, yipping and howling” coming from his backyard about 2 a.m. late last month.
The commotion went on for several minutes. Gannam said it matched recordings of wild coyote calls that he found on the Internet. The coyote visits left him alert but not overly alarmed.
“I got pretty comfortable after doing some research that they are rarely a threat to humans, and usually not to pets. “And I think it has plenty to eat in the woods, though that doesn’t quite explain why it went after my grill,” Gannam said,
Wildlife authorities, however, caution that several coyote attacks on dogs and cats have been reported in Florida over the past few years.
BOBCAT UNDER DECK
Reclusive and rarely seen, Florida panthers breed in the state’s southern tip. Experts say a few young male panthers have traveled as far as Northeast Florida. And one was even documented as far north as Central Georgia near the Alabama line. But smaller, elusive bobcats live and breed here.
A bobcat sought refuge from the heat beneath the wooden deck of Bill Goreschak’s home in River Oaks Plantation in St. Johns County. The animal fled when Goreschak’s teenage son, David, came out onto the deck.
“My son was on top of the deck at the top of the stairs and the bobcat was right under him underneath the stairs, and skittered across the grass about 25 feet then stopped at the edge of the grass and looked back at him,” Goreschak said.
That was about 18 months ago. But the bobcat’s been back, he said.
“We saw it about six months ago. It was on the boardwalk out to our creek. … It was probably about 150 feet from our house,” Goreschak said.
Brenda and Darrell Shields are accustomed to wildlife visiting their Jacksonville Beach home. Their yard is like a oasis for creatures great and small with its freshwater pond, broad-limbed oak trees and myriad plants adjacent to the neighboring marsh, woods and Intracoastal Waterway.
Otters sun themselves on the couple’s dock. Possums, armadillos and raccoons are at home amid the many plants. Songbirds overhead in the trees. Owls, snowy egrets, kingfishers, herons and wood storks line the bank of the pond. The couple keep the yard as natural as possible so wildlife will feel at home.
“We don’t try to make them pets. We want them to be wild animals… We’re cultivators of nature and we’re glad we can help them have a place to live,” Brenda Shields said.
The couple recently rescued a snowy egret that nearly drowned while fishing in their pond. A turtle had grabbed the egret’s leg to pull it beneath the water as rain poured down. Struggling for its life, the egret was exhausted and covered with weeds, leaves and twigs floating in the pond. The Shields eased their boat out to it then brought it to shore where they rinsed clean with barely warm water.
They kept the bird warm with a towel and washcloth then caught some minnows from the pond and put them in a dish near the egret, which perked up at the sight. When a minnow flopped out onto the floor, Shields gently fed it to the egret. By morning, it had recovered and when the couple released it, the egret flew up into a nearby tree and then away, she said.
Habitat loss due to development means wildlife and human interactions are more frequent.
Consider Florida’s black bear, said Janet Larson, program chairwoman of the Sierra Club Northeast Florida Group.
“Bears have been commonly seen in what is now Nocatee because it’s connected generally to larger rural/wild lands to the south and west,” said Larson, adding it’s logical there could be more human-bear encounters there in the future.
Urbanization of rural areas means roads are built that intersect wildlife travel areas meaning animals can’t readily cross from one section of habitat to another. Wildlife corridors such as tunnels under highways are expensive. Fences built to channel far-ranging wildlife, such as panthers, underground to cross don’t always work, Larson said.
“It’s kind of like if you went into a dark tunnel yourself. It’s forboding and isn’t enticing so they [wildlife] don’t want to use them so they choose the visual path which leads to them getting hit on the road,” she said.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by because there is no centralized data base for wildlife encounters. Typically, incidents go unreported unless someone is killed or injured or property is damaged. However, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tracks incidents involving bears, panthers, alligators and manatees. The Florida Office of Defenders of Wildlife works to prevent human-wildlife conflicts in the first place. Data of deer-vehicle collisions is collected by State Farm, which produces an annual state-by-state analysis.
Catching a deer in the headlights might not happen as often in Florida as other states. But Bambi and his kin still cross into the path of motorists each year in incidents typically ending badly for both driver and deer.
Florida is among 15 states nationwide with the lowest risk of a driver hitting a deer. The odds are 1 in 991, according to State Farm, the nation’s leading auto insurer.
The state’s roads also are deadly for other wildlife. The leading cause of death for bears and panthers in Florida is collisions with cars, according to Defenders of Wildlife. Collisions also kill otters, eagles, hawks, owls and turtles, said Melanie Cain-Stage, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and founder of Humane Association of Wildlife Care and Education Inc. in St. Johns County.
Virtually all the animals brought to HAWKE have been injured or orphaned by cars. The number of those animals has gone up 50 percent in the 26 years since HAWKE opened, Cain-Stage said.
Ted and Brandy Schneider don’t take bears for granted but they learned to live with those that wander their neighborhood on the St. Johns River in Satsuma. Until recently, the couple had only seen bears at a distance.
Schneider came within feet of being face-to-snout with a mother bear and her cub in January. He’d stepped outside just before dawn to pick up his newspaper at the end of his driveway. Mother and cub came along the side of his house just them. As the screen door slammed shut behind Schneider, the mother bear rose up on her hind legs and looked straight at him.
“Fortunately, I was near the door to retreat to avoid a confrontation,” he said.
A few weeks later, the bird feeder hanging outside the couple’s dining room window proved irresistible to the bears. The mother bear knocked down the feeder with ease. Gobbling up the spilled bird seed until their bellies were full, the bears ambled off peacefully, presumably for a nap, Schneider said.
Their homeowner’s association has advised residents to be careful at night, carry a whistle and flashlight to scare off bears, and reminded them that they shouldn’t leave out trash or deliberately feed the bears, Scheider said.
Not all bear encounters, however, end safely. There is no guarantee, as evidenced by Susan Chalfant’s experience while walking her dogs Dec. 2 near her Longwood home in Seminole County.
The 54-year-old woman was attacked about 8 p.m. by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The mother bear charged Chalfant from some bushes, knocked her down and mauled her although she fought to fend it off. That attack was the worst recorded in Florida, where state data show such incidents are rare, said Sarah Barrett, a biologist for FWC’s Florida Black Bear Management Program
“Bears are very opportunistic. …They come into neighborhoods all the time and would live there if we let them, but that’s not what we want,” said Barrett, noting that bears periodically pass through Middleburg in Clay County, and there is a resident bear population in Baker County.
About 3,000 bears roam the state – a far cry from about 300 in 1974 when Florida banned hunting them. Last year, the state received a record 6,700 bear-related calls ranging from mere sightings to bears cracking open a garage freezer for a free meal, and the Chalfant attack. The state received about 6,200 calls in 2012, Barrett said.
Some young male bears wander into neighborhoods looking for love and territory, but food is the prime motivator.
“Bears are smart enough to be lazy,” Barrett said.
Bears eat 5,000 calories a day in early spring but ramp it up to 20,000 calories a day during the fall in preparation for winter.
“To a bear, 20,000 calories a day is spending 18 hours a day walking around the forest looking for acorns. Or you can hit a couple of trash cans and eat our leftovers then sleep the rest of the day,” Barrett said.
Mother bears run off their sons after about 18 months. The young males roam in the spring to find a territory of their own. Often they end up on the fringe of a mature adult bear’s territory, which tends to be human neighborhood. Those young male bears generally get into trouble more often with people, Barrett said.
Roaming bears tend to get hit Florida roads. Last year, 230 bears were struck and killed, while a record 284 died after being hit in 2012.
The Florida panther historically has fared poorly on the state’s roadways. Twenty panthers died last year including 15 killed trying to cross roads. The panther death toll was 27 in 2012 of which 18 were caused by vehicles, state data show.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t had a documented panther attack on a person at least in 100 years, but that isn’t to say it couldn’t happen,” said Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife, adding a panther will choose an easy meal such as small livestock over chasing a deer in the forest.
Larson of the Sierra Club said the public needs to be educated about not feeding wildlife, intentionally or accidentally. Animals that associate people with a free meal get into all kinds of trouble because they get accustomed to humans.
“If we don’t habituate wildlife to human interaction, they’ll instinctively try to steer clear of us, Larson said.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075