Daring Rescue; FWC Biologist Saves Drowning Bear
A 375-pound male black bear with a penchant for beachfront browsing was on dry land Saturday after a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologist pulled the tranquilized animal from Gulf of Mexico waters in Florida’s Panhandle.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I jumped in,” said biologist Adam Warwick, who saw the bear struggling in the warm Gulf waters after it had been hit with a tranquilizer dart.
“It was a spur of the moment decision,” he said. “I had a lot of adrenaline pumping when I saw the bear in the water.”
The bear was roaming through a residential area Tuesday on Alligator Point, a neighborhood of about 100 homes on a small peninsula about 40 miles south of Tallahassee.
To prevent bears from wandering into residential neighborhoods, the FWC urges residents to secure garbage cans and other sources of food that might attract bears.
FWC officials responded to reports of a bear in the area and found the animal underneath a beachfront home. Their plan was to move it to a remote location, back in the wild.
The tranquilizer dart took longer than expected to work, and Warwick said the animal bolted into the Gulf in an effort to escape.
Warwick was worried the bear was already showing the effects of the immobilizing drug and that the bear couldn’t swim the four miles to land.
“At that point, I decided to go in after the bear,” Warwick said. “I wanted to keep him from swimming into deeper water.”
The animal was about 25 yards from shore when he jumped into the water.
“I was in the water swimming toward the bear, trying to prevent him from swimming into deeper water,” Warwick said. “He was now losing function (an effect of the drugs) in his arms and legs, and was obviously in distress.”
Warwick said he tried to splash and create commotion in an attempt to get the bear to head back to the shore.
“Instead, the clearly confused bear looked at me as if he was either going to go by, through or over me . . . and at times he even looked as if he was just going to climb on top of me to keep from drowning.”
Warwick said that after a few minutes the bear reared up on his hind legs as if to lunge at him, but instead fell straight backwards and was submerged.
“At that point I knew I had to keep the bear from drowning,” he said. “After a few seconds the bear popped his head up out of the water and thrashed around a bit, but could obviously no longer keep his head above water.”
Warwick kept one arm underneath the bear and the other gripping the scruff of its neck to keep the bear’s head above water. Warwick said he walked barefoot over concrete blocks crusted with barnacles in the 4-foot-deep water as he tried to guide and use the water to help float the bear back to shore.
He said he cut his feet on the barnacles and the bear scratched him once on the foot, but he was otherwise uninjured.
Area resident Wendy Chandler said Warwick looked like a lifeguard, pulling a tired swimmer to shore.
During Warwick’s trek, FWC Officer Travis Huckeba and a bystander with a boat approached Warwick and the bear in the water. The bear was startled and Warwick lost his grip until the boat backed off.
Warwick said the bear’s buoyancy made his job less difficult.
“It’s a lot easier to drag a bear in 4-foot water than move him on dry land,” he said.
When Warwick and the bear made it to shore, “A bystander arrived out of nowhere with a backhoe and, with some assistance, we were able to load the bear into the bucket and then into an FWC truck,” Warwick said.
Thad Brett, a general contractor who lives in the area and had a backhoe for work he was doing to his house, said his wife had seen the commotion and told him Warwick was trying to get the bear out of the water.
“I knew how hard it would be to get that bear out,” Brett said. “I could see he was about waist-deep in the water, and I came down with the backhoe.”
Brett said he positioned the bucket of the backhoe in the water so the bear could be lifted out and moved to the truck bed.
“It’s good to have good guys like (Warwick) around,” Brett said. “We’re real glad to have the FWC come out and help us with these bears, and we were real glad the bear was going to be relocated.”
The bear was transported to the FWC Tate’s Hell office and Warwick and FWC’s Ron Copley relocated the bear to the Osceola National Forest near Lake City.
“He was going up under people’s houses, probably trying to cool off,” Chandler said. “Kids were going up and down the stairs and anything might happen. We’re all pulling for the bear to get adjusted in his new home.”