Lifestyle - July 30, 2017

Central Florida Zoo opens bear exhibit without infamous bear

The stars of the “bear house,” the new $500,000 Florida black bear showcase at the Sanford zoo, took turns scampering through a wading pool, chomping on a watermelon and climbing trees.

The sibling black bears, named Ella and Guignard (pronounced jin-yard), romped in an enclosure fenced off from a two-story house designed to remind visitors from Central Florida’s bear country to lock up garbage, close garage doors and stay mindful of the bears next door.

The educational exhibit opens to the public Tuesday at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens on U.S. Highway 17-92.

“These bears are really ambassadors to the general public,” said Mike Orlando, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s bear expert in Central Florida. “Not only are you getting to enjoy the bears and their antics … but also it’s providing a really important educational process to get people to keep up [with] their garbage, bird-feeders and pet food so we reduce conflicts with bears.”

Named for zoo donors, the siblings got off to a rough start in real life. They were about a month old and weighed less than 10 pounds in 2014 when FWC wildlife agents took custody of them.

Georgia loggers working in a forest in North Florida had chased off their mother and snatched them from their den.

Guignard was kept in a cage like a dog at the home of one of the loggers until a wildlife agent seized the cub. Ella was handed off by a logger to an uncle, who turned the cub loose for fear he would be caught with her and arrested.

The exhibit is intended to teach zoo visitors about living with bears in Central Florida, where gated communities bump up against wildlife corridors.

Many Central Florida residents, who call a state hotline thousands of times every year to report nuisance bears, may feel they already get an uncomfortably close view of bears raiding backyard bird-feeders and snooping through barbecue grills, garbage cans and garages.

The zoo exhibit offers safety lessons.

“I learned if you don’t have the right kind of handle on your door, they might come right in your house,” said Leslie Meador, a Sanford mom who attended a preview last week with her daughters Sydney, 13, and Hannah, 11.

The house is filled with reminders to scrape outdoor grills to minimize odors that can lure a bear from the woods by the nose and warnings that bears will cool off in residential fountains and pools.

Zoo director Dino Ferri said the bear house should carry special meaning in Central Florida, which has more documented run-ins with bears than any other region of the state.

The siblings ended up at the zoo through the work of wildlife investigators and a good Samaritan in Georgia, who found the female cub.

“I’m so happy to know she is safe and with her brother now,” said Vanessa Hannaford, 41, who babysat the cub at Okefenokee Swamp Park in Georgia.

She was riding her bicycle into the park when she found the cub wailing near a parking lot. It ran to her.

“She was helpless,” Hannaford said.

She said she resisted holding the tiny cub or feeding it because of the old saying, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Instead, as the cub played with the laces of her shoes, Hannaford said she called a park ranger who told her to “let nature take care of it.”

Fearing it would die, she spent the night in the forest watching the cub as it slept. A wildlife officer arrived after dawn the next day with a can of sardines for the cub.

“I think about her all the time,” Hannaford said.

FWC placed the cubs at a wildlife-rehabilitation center first, then moved them to the zoo about two years ago. Bear experts believed the cubs were too food-conditioned and comfortable around humans to be safely returned to the wild, said Elena Lamar, deputy director of animal operations at the Central Florida Zoo.

When the bear exhibit was first planned, the zoo had intended to include an adult bear that mauled a Seminole County woman four years ago.

But zoo keepers shipped that bear, a 271-pound female blamed in the Dec. 2, 2013, attack of Susan Chalfant, to an Arkansas wildlife refuge last September. Zoo spokeswoman Stephannie Kettle said the bear was not suitable for exhibition “due to her personality.”

Her new keepers at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge near Eureka Springs, Ark., said the 10-year-old bear arrived with the name Popper.

The refuge coincidentally is raising money for its own bear exhibit, expected to feature Popper and two smaller bears, refuge communications director Linda Brinker said.

A biography on the refuge’s website describes Popper as “a shy girl who spends her days napping on her habitat bench …” It does not mention the mauling of Chalfant, who was critically injured when the bear knocked her to the ground twice and bit her in the face and neck.

Hudak can be reached at 407-650-6361, or on Twitter @Bearlando.

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