Injured bear sent packing by Florida wildlife officials
By John Barry, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Somewhere out there is a Florida black bear that's just got to hate
This bear has a hide full of birdshot pellets from an old encounter
with a myopic duck hunter. It also has a freshly broken foreleg after a
car ran into it on Florida's Turnpike.
This bear was rescued then un-rescued by state wildlife officials.
It was whisked off a veterinary examining table in Miami as a surgeon
stood ready to fasten its fractures with plates. It was returned to the
woods and prodded from its cage, and was last seen wandering off on
[South Florida Sun Sentinel]
Veterinary surgeon Marc Wosar escorts the injured bear from his clinic
in Miami for return to the wild. The bear was rescued after being hit by
a car on Floridas Turnpike.
The bear is a young male. It weighs 200 pounds. There are about 2,400
bears like it left in Florida. The veterinarians who tried to help
nicknamed it "Turnpike."
The surgeon wanted to operate. The state says wild bears heal best
when left alone.
And the bear? Well, the bear can't be reached for comment.
State game officials often move heaven and earth to save injured wild
animals, including bears. A year ago, an officer for the Florida Fish
and Wildlife Conservation Commission actually rescued a full-grown bear
drowning in the Gulf of Mexico by dragging it to shore by the scruff of
Two years ago, the commission's wildlife veterinarian rescued a
mother bear and cub from a fire in Osceola National Forest and treated
the mother's burns for a month at Walt Disney World.
Yet bear rescues are rare in Florida. Generally, state policy is to
leave injured bears alone. They're known to suffer in captivity, like
wild deer. But the state had never taken one right off a medical table.
The misbegotten rescue of Turnpike began around 11:30 p.m. Feb. 3,
when Bob Freer got a call from Fish and Wildlife officers. He owns the
Everglades Outpost Wildlife Refuge in Florida City. He rehabs injured
wild animals often big ones. Currently, he's nursing a tiger, a
Florida black bear and a grizzly.
The wildlife officers asked if he could make room for a black bear
hit by a car.
They soon showed up in a van with a tranquilized bear in the back.
They also had with them an Animal Planet filmmaking crew.
Freer isn't a veterinarian, but he started cleaning the bear's
superficial wounds. The worst was an open wound on the bear's right
haunch about the size of a man's hand. He also felt the bear's limbs.
When he felt the right foreleg, he was pretty sure it was broken.
He says he was subsequently called by a Fish and Wildlife official
and told that rehabbing black bears violated state policy. Freer told
the official, "Look, I know nothing about that. Your officers brought
They had erred, the official said. They would soon come to repossess
Freer told the official an Animal Planet crew was documenting
"They decided," Freer said, "to let the bear be X-rayed."
On Feb. 5, a muzzled Turnpike was carried into the Miami Veterinary
Specialists clinic with a pink tranquilizer dart sticking in his back.
Waiting for him was Marc Wosar, a veterinary surgeon who has repaired
fractures in wild wolves and bears.
Freer was also there, hoping the X-ray would show only a hairline
fracture. He grimaced when he saw the X-ray.
It showed that Turnpike's right foreleg the radius and ulna had
split in two. The upper pieces bent one way, the lower bent the other.
The X-ray also showed a fair amount of birdshot, evidence that a
hunter had once drawn a bead on the bear.
Wosar's plan was to fasten the bones with two surgical plates. "It
would have been quite an operation," he said. But by using an extra
plate, he said the animal could walk on the leg right after surgery. It
could even be released immediately into the wild.
He had performed similar operations on wolves and a black bear with
"The anatomy of a bear is incredibly doglike," Wosar said. "It's
basically the same physiology. There's not that much mystery."
The surgeon was ready to operate free of charge. "I wanted to remove
But then he said he encountered the ultimate barrier: "A man with a
badge and a gun."
Three hours after being carried into the clinic, Turnpike was carried
out, still sedated, by wildlife officers. The bear was driven to
Picayune Strand in the Big Cypress National Reserve and let go.
Mark Cunningham, wildlife veterinarian for the Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission, has heard from upset veterinarians ever since.
He's the same state vet who rescued a mother bear and cub from a
forest fire on Mother's Day 2007. He arranged for the bears to be
rehabbed at Disney's Animal Kingdom for a month before returning them to
But that was a different situation, he said. The mother bear couldn't
walk on blistered paws. Turnpike could walk, could gather food, could
induce its own state of semihibernation and could heal on its own.
Wosar agreed that the bear could have been released but strongly
believes that the surgical plates would have enabled it to walk with
Cunningham said the state could have saved itself a lot of criticism
by allowing Wosar to operate. "But I offer the fact that we didn't as
proof we acted in the bear's best interests."
Sutures from the surgery, he said, would have put the bear at risk of
infection. That risk was greater than turning the bear loose untreated.
Wosar said that failures from older veterinary techniques may account
for the present policy. He thinks the state ought to consider the
advances in veterinary medicine.
Is Turnpike out there suffering?
"I hesitate to say this because it sounds callous," Cunningham said,
"but I've seen bears knock over a beehive, and sit there eating honey
while the bees sting them all over their faces, even up their noses.
"They just seem to do better than in captivity."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com. or (727)