Living with Wildlife in Florida
Florida's wildlife and human populations are encountering each other more often than ever before. As humans develop more natural spaces, wildlife habitat is reduced and fragmented, so encounters between humans and wildlife increase. For many people, observing wildlife is an exciting experience, but for others, the thought of sharing living space is frightening.
We need to remind ourselves that bears, panthers, alligators and other animals are doing their best to make a living and raise their young, just like us. Developing an appreciation and understanding of our wild neighbors can help to accept them and coexist, without resorting to extreme measures.
Some tips for keeping wildlife and humans safe and avoiding conflicts:
· NEVER feed wild animals. Feeding them accustoms them to humans and is a certain death sentence for bears, alligators and other species.
· Remove potential food sources by feeding pets indoors, installing baffles on bird feeder poles, securing compost piles and grills, and fastening trash cans lids with rubber straps.
· Bring pets inside at night to keep them safe from hungry predators.
· Cover possible entryways with hardware cloth to exclude squirrels, bats and other animals scouting out your home for a safe place to raise young
Here is some information, complements of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, on coexisting with some of the larger animals we share living space with here in Florida.
Living with black bears
Though rarely seen, we do have black bears in Florida. Seeing a black bear is a thrilling and rewarding experience. The presence of bears is not necessarily a problem or a threat to your safety. It is vitally important to remember that bears are wild animals and deserve respect. If you are not careful, you could break the law and risk both your own safety and the bear's. The most important thing you can remember to coexist is DO NOT FEED THE BEARS. Not only is it dangerous to condition a bear to associate humans with food, it's also against the law.
Bears are driven by their need to eat and with a sense of smell that can detect odors over a mile away, problems arise when bears gain access to food sources such as pet foods, garbage, barbecue grills, bird seed or even livestock feed. The calories a bear can consume by picking through one garbage can often surpasses what they can find in an entire day in their own habitat.
Bears are highly intelligent and adaptable, learning quickly to associate people with food. Black bears are normally too shy to risk contact with humans, but their powerful need to find food can overwhelm this fear. As bears become "food-conditioned" (dependent on a food source) they are more likely to frequent residential areas and cause property damage to get these unnatural food sources. Over time, they become “habituated”, gradually losing their fear of humans and will return frequently to locations with accessible food.
It can take several weeks after preventative methods have been implemented before a bear will understand that the food source is no longer available. Once bears lose their natural fear of people, often due to access to food attractants, there is often little hope to make the bear wild again. These habituated and food conditioned bears are often killed, either by vehicle collisions, illegal shooting, or as a result of bear management actions to keep the community safe.
It is easy to live in harmony with bears and save their lives by simply securing the temptation of trash and other attractants.
Living with alligators
Alligators, commonly feared reptiles in Florida, play a vital role in Florida's complex ecology.
Alligators inhabit all freshwater habitats, including marshes, swamps, rivers, springs and lakes in all 67 counties throughout the state. Again, due to Florida's booming population growth (and our desire for waterfront homes, and water-related activities), people and alligators are constantly forced to cross paths, increasing the chances of conflict. Knowing where alligators live, how they behave and what you can do to avoid conflict with alligators is key to sharing space safely. Alligators and Floridians usually have a peaceful coexistence, but there are recorded attacks and occasional fatalities. The key to staying safe is being alert to the possibility of alligators being present.
Never feed alligators or swim or wade in waters where large alligators are known or likely to occur, especially at dusk or night (when they naturally feed). It is illegal to feed alligators. When humans feed alligators, it causes the alligators to lose their natural fear of humans and to associate humans with food. It doesn't matter if people feed them human-food like marshmallows or throw them fish guts when cleaning fish, it's all bad, and changes the alligator's behavior. Normally, alligators avoid humans, but alligators that have been fed by humans will move toward humans and can become aggressive. Alligators that have been fed by humans are very dangerous.
It is very important to keep children and pets away from the water's edge wherever alligators are likely to be present. Do not allow dogs to swim or explore waters that are known to have alligators because dogs look like prey to alligators. There are far more alligator attacks on dogs than on humans. An alligator's prey selection seems based mostly on size of the potential prey animal, not so much on a keen recognition of specific animals as prey or non-prey.
Living with Panthers
The Florida panther, Florida's official state animal, is one of the most endangered animals on earth, with 100 to 160 adults remaining in Florida. A single panther needs 50-100 square miles of territory to secure food and mates. They prefer to live in remote, undeveloped areas, but with the consistent sprawl of development into their habitats, they are losing suitable habitat and moving around more than ever. Recent evidence shows panthers may be expanding their range northwards, and with an excess of 1,000 people moving to Florida every week, chances of panther encounters increase.
Panthers travel great distances to maintain their territory, and these travels often entail crossing roads. More than 100 panthers have been killed on Florida roads in the last 30 years. The Florida Department of Transportation has installed wildlife crossings, which allow panthers and other wildlife to safely cross busy highways, but more crossings are needed. When in panther habitat, be alert, decrease your speed and increase the distance between you and other cars. Scan the roadsides for reflective animal eyes.
Keep livestock in enclosed sheds or barns at night and keep pets safely inside. Supervise children and install outside lighting.
Living with Snakes
Many people have an uncontrollable fear of snakes, but they play a vital role in Florida’s ecosystems, keeping rodents in check that threaten crops and carry diseases. Of Florida’s 44 species of snakes, only 6 are venomous, so any time to see a snake, there is a very high chance it’s non-venomous.
By learning to recognize our venomous snakes and understanding their habits, you can take a more relaxed attitude toward them and appreciate them as an integral part of Florida's wildlife if and when you do see them.
Upon encountering a snake (venomous OR non-venomous OR unknown), you should stand back, observe it and give it plenty of space to go about its business. Snakes are not aggressive towards humans, and will not strike unless threatened. They'd much rather avoid human encounters and will usually flee. Snakes usually bite people only if they are molested; it's their only means of self-defense. It’s interesting to note that most venomous snake bites occur when people are provoking or trying to move or kill a snake.
Living with coyotes
The coyote is a relatively recent resident of Florida. They began showing up in Florida in the 1960’s and have slowly drifted south over the last few decades. With very few natural enemies, their population has flourished. As urban development closes in on their territory, the coyote is becoming a common sight in suburbia.