By Erika Webb
The bear that state wildlife officials and some residents say killed Ray and Monica Ojeda's goats in Lake Helen earlier this month was likely around 300 pounds, according to bear biologist Mike Orlando.
Efforts to trap the animal were unsuccessful and residents are being advised to keep smaller livestock behind electric fences or in enclosed barns or sheds.
Previous sightings of a bear estimated to weigh around 250 pounds, tracks, a mashed fence, four dead goats and an injured donkey led Running Deer Trail neighbors Cathy Murphy, Cathy Cole and Dan MacCarrick to one conclusion: a dangerous bear had killed and maimed. And it might come back.
That was late in June.
Florida Wildlife Commission officials wouldn't confirm a bear had caused the carnage.
Two months later at the Ojeda's property on Lemon Avenue, bear tracks and a mangled fence containing around 16 goats -- eight of them dead -- and more told a pretty convincing story.
Lynn McNeely, a longtime Lake Helen resident, said she's not going to argue with anyone, but she isn't persuaded the killings have been the work of the typically shy Florida black bear.
She said at least one panther has been seen in the area, and that it, bobcats or coyotes seem like more likely suspects.
"We're seeing an unusual number of bears this year because of such a rainy season ... they're being driven out," Ms. McNeely said. "Their sleeping areas are disturbed. They're looking for food."
But she doesn't think they're looking for livestock to eat.
Ms. McNeely said a man who lived behind the property on where the first attack occurred was chased into his barn by a coyote running after the man's dog.
"There's just a lot of rattling because of what happened," she said. "I'd love to think it's not a bear."
FWC Public Information Coordinator Joy Hill said agency officials are confident the early August incident was a bear attack.
She said evidence including tracks and the type of bites the owner described are the main indicators.
"This is not really gonna indict bears because they do kill small animals," Ms. Hill said. "They're such poor predators that they're not really good at catching wild ones. It's easier for them to kill chickens and goats. They don't seem to bother dogs and cats too much."
The reason small livestock like goats and chickens are easy targets is they are confined and more easily cornered by bears, bobcats and coyotes.
"People need to take responsibility for protecting their critters," Ms. Hill said. "The best thing is to keep them securely locked up at night. Generally, this stuff happens when predators are the most active, at dusk, dawn and through the night. Part of having livestock, even though it can be kind of expensive, is to have the right kind of fencing, and to build a barn or facility for locking them up at night."
For bears, she said electrified fences work very well but many people think one strand of charged wire will do the job. Not so.
"They need a minimum of four strands," she said. "Five is even better. Trying to fence 10 acres with four or five strands of electric can be challenging, but they could do a smaller area with a holding place."
Another important action livestock owners can take, in cases like the two in Lake Helen, is to get good close-up pictures of the wounds on the animals. As difficult as that may be for distraught pet owners, it helps FWC definitively conclude what type of animal was the attacker, Ms. Hill said.
The owner of the eight mortally wounded goats had disposed of the bodies before FWC could get a look, but photos provided by the Lake Helen Police Department helped Mr. Orlando identify the likely culprit.
In the June attacks on Cathy Murphy's goats and donkey, Ms. Hill said the evidence wasn't as clear cut.
She said the donkey's wounds were more along the lines of superficial abrasions with no puncture wounds evident, judging from the photos provided by the owner.
Dan MacCarrick, Ms. Murphy's neighbor, said his dogs were barking the night of the attack. Upon discovering the slaughtered goats between 4 and 5 a.m. he called the sheriff's office and was told to contact FWC. He called and was told to call back after 8 a.m.
Mr. MacCarrick said his girlfriend, Cathy Cole, called at 8:05 a.m. and offered to leave the goats' bodies where they were so FWC personnel could have a look.
"They told us to dispose of the bodies because they wouldn't be sending anyone out," Mr. MacCarrick said. "I felt like a crime scene investigator, taking pictures of the bear prints next to the goats."
Two days after a Fox News report of the incident aired, FWC sent a representative, but Mr. MacCarrick believes the person was a contracted nuisance tracker. He claimed to be with the wildlife agency but did not have a business card and was not wearing a FWC uniform.
"I think they asked him to come over and talk to us," Mr. MacCarrick said. "Basically, he said they can't trap (the bears) because there's nowhere to put them."
After the August attacks, Ms. Hill said, FWC placed a trap on Mr. Ojeda's property.
"We set it on Friday so it was out there on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday," she said. "There was no sign a bear had even come around so we pulled it and that was that."
Even removing a bear won't solve the problem long term, Ms. Hill explained.
"Wildlife lives out there," she said, reiterating the best defense is keeping small livestock contained in a secure facility at night.
Though FWC was not able to get out to Ms. Murphy and Mr. MacCarrick's properties right away, Ms. Hill said sending the nuisance trapper is standard procedure. She said it was unfortunate the neighbors were advised to dispose of the goats' bodies and maintained getting good pictures of the wounds is invaluable to FWC investigations.
"There was no doubt a bear had been visiting them -- it had gotten into the neighbor's dog food, which he now locks up, and there were pictures of it. Plus there were foot prints. But without the harder evidence, we were not comfortable indicting a bear. Bears are often in livestock areas without incidents at all, except eating the livestock food," Ms. Hill explained.
Mr. MacCarrick followed instructions. He said he spent the Fourth of July putting electric fencing around the livestock area. He also now puts his four miniature goats and miniature horse in stalls at night.
"If we were sure it was a bear, we would have set the trap and if we caught it, would have euthanized it," Ms. Hill said. "But, as with the second case, there's never a guarantee we'll catch a bear, let alone the offending one. However, bear or not, the advice is the same, and I am absolutely thrilled they took the advice."
Mr. MacCarrick is urging people to call and report all bear sightings and to let neighbors know so they can secure their animals and lock up any feed they might have.
Cpl. Robert Mullins of the Lake Helen Police Department said a large bear has been reported roaming around Lake Helen for about six weeks.
He suspects the extra rainfall this year and construction along Interstate 4 has driven the bears out of the woods to south of the construction zone into Lake Helen.
"I've been here 15 years and we haven't had any bear reports until the last six weeks," Cpl. Mullins said.
Bears are known to eat the udders of small livestock like sheep and goats, so he said he doesn't doubt a bear was to blame for the incident earlier this month.
"It does happen so I'm not gonna say it doesn't happen," he said. "We have coyotes and the neighbor next door got coyotes on a game camera the night before the goats were killed. We know they were killed by an animal. We just don't know what kind of animal."
Ms. Hill said the omnivorous black bears' diet consists of 80 percent vegetation, including leaves, grass, berries and nuts. The 20 percent protein portion of their diet is mostly insects.
"Another thing it's important to note ... it's hard to say in either of these instances if all goats were killed by the animal," she said. "Cervids, hooved animals, can have capture myopathy when they get scared and start running around. Their blood pressure gets so high they drop dead."