Was killing this Florida black bear necessary? State agency rips PBSO decision to 'take the shot'
DO NOT SHOOT the bear. You don’t want to shoot the bear.
The state wildlife officer could not have been more emphatic in his directive to the shotgun-toting sheriff’s deputies at the bottom of a 50-foot slash pine where a juvenile Florida black bear clung to branches above them.
Earlier that morning on June 18, the bear was seen wandering through some backyards in Royal Palm Beach’s Saratoga Lakes community, playfully prancing like a dog, as one neighbor recalled.
But with mid-day approaching and the bear having retreated up the tree above Crestwood Boulevard, a power struggle was unfolding between two agencies over the fate of a protected animal rarely seen in Palm Beach County.
The bear was not a threat to anyone, said Lonnie Brevik, one of two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers on the scene. His orders from the agency’s bear management team in Tallahassee were to allow the bear the opportunity to find its way to nearby protected wilderness.
But Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputies at the scene had a different view. The bear was in a residential area, across the boulevard from an elementary school. Minutes earlier, it wandered through a backyard full of children's toys, prompting a frightened resident to call 911.
To PBSO, the risk of the animal encountering someone or wandering into traffic was unacceptable, regardless of FWC’s constitutional authority over wildlife in Florida.
At 12:25 p.m., the bear started climbing down the scrub pine. Officers from both agencies yelled and sounded their patrol car sirens in an effort to shoo the animal back up the tree.
But the bear kept descending.
As soon as it reached the ground, it started to retreat away from the officers, the FWC said. A few feet away, two deputies with 12-gauge shotguns took aim as their supervisor gave the order:
“Take the shot.’’
The juvenile Florida black bear was first seen around 8 a.m. June 18 in some back yards on Belmont Drive in Royal Palm Beach. (PBSO)
BLACK BEARS HAVE roamed Florida for thousands of years. When the first European settlers arrived in the 1500s, there may have been 11,500 bears sharing space with 350,000 people, according to studies noted in the FWC bear management plan.
Thanks to conservation efforts that helped the bear population rebound from a low of about 300 in the 1970s, an estimated 4,000 Florida black bears occupy 49 percent of their historic range today.
But as more people continue moving to Florida, the nation’s third-largest state by population, human conflict with wildlife is inevitable. The FWC receives up to 6,000 calls a year related to black bears, whose adaptive nature allows them to live in different environments, including residential areas.
Using their keen sense of smell, seven times better than a bloodhound’s, they help themselves to a smorgasbord of unsecured garbage, pet food and bird seed. Most of their diet is plant-based.
The bears are shy and generally not aggressive, says the FWC, which has documented only 15 incidents of people being moderately or seriously injured by bears in more than 50 years. There have been no recorded incidents of black bears killing people in Florida.
(First two maps Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; far right ByJoeCapozzi.com. Pin shows June 18 bear sighting location.)
“I call them the scaredy cats of nature. All it takes is a clap of a hand or a whistle to make them frightened enough to run away,’’ said Katrina Shadix of Bear Warriors United, a Seminole County-based nonprofit that advocates for the protection of wildlife.
But don't assume they’re Gentle Bens.
Florida black bears are the state’s largest native land mammal. Adults typically weigh between 150 and 400 pounds, with males often twice the size of females.
They can act unpredictably and become dangerous, the FWC said. Their regular presence around people would likely result in bears losing their natural fear, increasing the risk to public safety, the agency said.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
A series of attacks in Central Florida suburban neighborhoods prompted the FWC in 2015 to sanction the state’s first bear hunt in 21 years. There have been no bear hunts since.
Though the Florida black bear was taken off the endangered species list in 2012, it is a protected species. Killing one without a special hunting permit is illegal “unless it is to protect human life,” the FWC says.
In South Florida, the bears are most commonly found in and around Big Cypress National Preserve and other parts of Collier County.
Although their range includes the southwest corner of Palm Beach County, they are rarely seen in most parts of the county.
ON THE MORNING of June 18, retired teacher Fred De Bisciglia received a text from a neighbor living a few doors down from him on Belmont Drive in Royal Palm Beach’s Saratoga Lakes community:
“There was a bear in my yard!!!! Cops are chasing it up and down the road. … He jumped over my fence when I went out to feed the birds. Stay inside!”
De Bisciglia thought it was a joke. He texted back, “Dear, are you drinking?”
Then his phone rang. “She called me and said, ‘No, it's true,’’’ he recalled. “And as she’s talking to me, I was inside the house looking out the window and I see the bear in a yard next door up in a tree. It came right down and it walked right past me in my yard.’’
Despite the juvenile bear’s size — FWC estimated its weight at 200 pounds, PBSO at 300 — De Bisciglia said he was surprised how playful it looked.
“The bear was kind of prancing, like happy dogs do,’’ he said. “He wasn't aggressive looking. It didn't look like he was doing much of anything. He was just hanging out.’’
Next door, Natasha Ramos and her relatives were watching the bear, too.
“I was actually fascinated,’’ she said. “He didn't look aggressive at all. He was actually avoiding us while we were out there taking pictures on the porch.’’
Another neighbor, Sarah Loredo, was in her house with her three small children when her dog started barking. She looked outside and saw the bear wandering inside her covered back porch, where her kids normally play.
“The bear looked in her direction which placed her in fear for her and her family’s life,’’ a deputy wrote in a report. “The bear didn’t attempt to enter the residence and continued to walk around.’’
The bear climbed a tree near the porch before climbing down and wandering off. A baby swing was attached to the tree. Beneath the tree was a small trampoline.
Inside their homes, neighbors took photos and exchanged texts, many making light of their unusual visitor.
“NOT A BORING SATURDAY!” read one. “He’s my new dog!” read another. One text had a meme of a dancing bear from Disney’s “Jungle Book.”
Outside, law enforcement officers from two agencies on scene were trying to track the bear’s whereabouts and figure out what to do with it.
DEPUTY CHAD AMARA, the first law-enforcement officer to arrive on scene, just after 8 a.m., requested assistance from FWC. PBSO has no policy for handling bears. Once FWC arrived, the state wildlife agency would take over with assistance from PBSO.
As FWC officer Lonnie Brevik drove to the scene, he notified an agency biologist who started reaching out to the FWC’s bear management program coordinators in Tallahassee.
When Brevik arrived on Belmont Drive, other deputies were on scene along with the PBSO’s drone unit. FWC officer Jason Willems arrived a few minutes later.
Brevik and Willems used their voices to shoo the bear up a tree, isolating the animal while wildlife agency biologists discussed a strategy.
“The juvenile Florida Black Bear appeared to be afraid of humans as it climbed up the tree to avoid us,’’ Brevik said in a report.
As the bear roamed around in the branches, the two officers stayed in contact with a supervisor, Lt. Austin Warne, and FWC’s bear management team in Tallahassee.
Several options were considered, including tranquilizing, relocating and trapping. Warne advised biologist Dave Telesco, coordinator of the FWC’s bear management program, that the scene “was in a populated area in a neighborhood without many places for the bear to go.’’
Telesco told Warne the team was “working on getting a trapper but are not having any luck.’’
A short while later, after a conference call with “multiple bear biologists in Tallahassee,” the FWC gave orders for the officers on scene to leave the bear alone “and let it go back into … an area that would not be a nuisance,’’ Warne said.
The agency reached that conclusion for two reasons: The bear did not pose an immediate threat to the public. And it was close to multiple natural areas, including two within a mile, Royal Palm Beach Pines to the west and Pond Cypress to the east. The vast J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area was 8 miles to the northwest and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge 9 miles to the southwest.
At 11:45 a.m., Brevik and Willems relayed the agency’s action plan to deputies at the scene. But a few minutes later, Brevik sensed PBSO might not be on board with FWC’s action plan. As he wrote in his report, “a deputy asked me to move my marked FWC patrol vehicle. I asked them what was going on.’’
Deputies told Brevik they had been told their role on scene had changed and that their orders were to shoot the bear if it came down the tree.
About 12:15 p.m., Brevik approached their supervisor, PBSO Lt. David Pervenecki. He told Brevik that “he had approval from the PBSO chain of command to shoot” the bear when it came down from the tree.
Brevik asked his supervisor if he’d been in contact yet with PBSO’s chain of command. When Warne said he had not, Brevik told him that PBSO was planning to shoot the bear if it came out of the tree.
Warne reached out to Capt. James Yetter and asked him to make direct contact to PBSO’s chain of command. By then, time was running out for the bear.
The frustration Brevik felt at the scene was evident in his report.
“PBSO was notified of the FWC plan of action but failed to heed FWC’s direction,’’ he wrote. “I told all PBSO personnel on scene to not shoot the bear and that they don’t want to shoot the bear.’’
THE BEAR STARTED climbing down the tree. (PBSO said the bear’s final descent started at 12:25 p.m.; time-stamped photos taken by FWC indicate it started roughly 20 minutes earlier.)
The “bear appeared scared and did not want to be in that tree anymore,’’ Brevik said.
Following orders relayed from Pervenecki, two deputies loaded their 12-gauge shotguns and positioned themselves about 10 feet from the base of the tree.
Brevik and Willems pleaded with the deputies not to shoot the bear. Both deputies told the FWC officers that they did not want to shoot the bear but were prepared to follow orders from their supervisor.
As Brevik and Willems sounded their patrol car sirens, the two deputies yelled at the bear in an effort to shoo it back up the tree. It worked for a moment: When the bear was about 20 feet from the ground, it started climbing again.
But the bear grew restless again and resumed its descent.
When “all four of its paws” reached the ground, the bear started moving away from the officers, the FWC said.
“I heard Lt. Prevenecki state, ‘Take the shot,’’’ wrote a PBSO deputy who described firing a shot that struck the bear just under its shoulder.
The bear fell, but immediately got back up, prompting a second deputy to fire two more shots. The first deputy moved closer and fired a final “merciful shot so the bear did not suffer,’’ he wrote in a report.
One PBSO report said the animal was still a few feet up in the tree when the first deputy “took the first shot striking the bear and it fell the rest of the way.’’
The FWC insisted the bear had reached the ground before it was shot.
“The bear was moving to get away from the officers and deputies when it was shot and killed on the far side east of the pine tree,’’ Brevik said. “The bear did not show any signs of aggression, when it exited the tree.’’
After the bear died, Willems, in a report, said he approached Prevenecki and voiced his disapproval.
“I advised him that the bear was a protected animal and should not (have) been killed unless it was a deadly force situation, which it was not.’’
FWC also disputed a PBSO report that claimed Brevik and Willem advised deputies at the scene that “if the bear were to come down from the tree prior to a trapper arriving, their orders were to neutralize the bear due to public safety.’’
“PBSO was not authorized by FWC to kill the bear,’’ Brevik said.
BEAR WARRIORS UNITED, one of several wildlife advocacy groups outraged by the incident, is demanding an investigation and threatening to file a lawsuit against PBSO.
“It absolutely 100 percent never should have happened,’’ said Katrina Shadix, who serves on the FWC’s Statewide Bear Technical Assistance Group. “All of this could have been avoided if they’d followed FWC protocol.’’
She has asked Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to consider filing charges against PBSO. But the State Attorney has no protocol for reviewing or investigating officer-involved shootings that do not involve people, said Marc Freeman, a spokesperson for Aronberg.
As of July 1, Aronberg’s office had not received a request from FWC or any law-enforcement agency to review the incident, Freeman said.
Shadix, executive director of Bear Warriors United, said she has consulted with an attorney and has started a gofundme page to raise $50,000 for a lawsuit against PBSO. The goal of the lawsuit would be to force PBSO to pay for bear training for law enforcement officers across Florida.
Because of the incident, the state wildlife agency has offered to provide PBSO with FWC bear response training to “ensure a more positive future outcome in situations like this,’’ Callender said.
Teri Barbera, a PBSO spokesperson, said her agency plans to work with the Palm Beach Zoo to ensure better access to trappers and tranquilizers.
PBSO acknowledged that its role was to assist FWC officers until they were able to relocate the bear. “However, after several hours of waiting for a bear trapper and/or a tranquilizer, from FWC, we were faced with a very difficult decision,’’ Barbera said in a statement.
But the decision was never PBSO’s to make, said the FWC.
“FWC has constitutional authority over wildlife in Florida,’’ said Arielle Callender, an agency spokesperson.
Some Belmont Drive residents also questioned PBSO’s decision.
“That’s not right,’’ said De Bisciglia, who learned from media reports that the bear had been shot. “I felt very very bad. If he had charged somebody that's a whole ‘nother story.’’
At least one neighbor defended PBSO.
“I’m sad the bear was destroyed, but as a resident where the bear was roaming for hours, I do not condemn sheriff’s deputies for putting public safety first,’’ Pam Traxler wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Palm Beach Post.
“Better the bear be destroyed than a person or pet be attached or killed.’’
Meanwhile, Shadix has given the bear a posthumous name: “Prince.’’
“He was in Royal Palm Beach, so he needed a royal title. I figured ‘Prince’ was appropriate,'' she said.
"He was a sweet prince. A sweet bear. Scared. It would have been different if he was running after them or but this poor bear was terrified, up in a tree, exhausted and confused. Everything was just handled so wrong.''
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.