Florida House member Jason Shoaf told a committee meeting that his House Bill 87, which would make it almost impossible to punish someone for the unauthorized killing of a bear, isn’t motivated by a dislike of bears in general. “We love bears,” he said, though it wasn’t clear whether he meant his family, his staff, or the Florida Republican caucus in general. “Bears are cute and cuddly and … amazing creature[s].” No, it’s only some bears that need to die. Which bears? The crack bears.
“We’re talking about the ones that are on crack, and they break your door down, and they’re standing in your living room growling and tearing your house apart,” Shoaf told the committee. “When you run into one of these crack bears, you should be able to shoot it, period.” Right. This isn’t some crazy piece of legislation like people have been saying. It’s just to make sure the people of Florida can defend themselves from home invasions by violent, drug-addled crack bears.
In order to accomplish this, Shoaf’s bill would provide an extremely broad immunity for bear-shooters who claim to have acted in self-defense. The Florida black bear once was almost extinct, but by 2012 had bounced back and was removed from the threatened-species list. But killing them (and lots of other things, it turns out) is still illegal without a permit.
The original version of HB 87 would have prohibited imposing any penalties if a bear-killer “felt threatened” by a bear and “believed” that lethal force was necessary for protection. That subjective, almost-impossible-to-disprove standard was dialed back by a recent amendment limiting the immunity to those who “reasonably believed” the killing “was necessary to avoid an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” to a person or pet, or to avoid “substantial damage to a dwelling,” like when a crack bear breaks down your door and starts tearing up your living room. This would not apply if the person “intentionally or recklessly” created the situation, such as by taunting the bear or, presumably, being the one who sold it crack in the first place.
Of course, there are always skeptics who feel the need to question common-sense legislation like this, asking questions like “what is the extent of the problem with Florida’s black bears” and “is it worse than the problem with Florida’s legislators” and “how many casualties has Florida suffered to date as a result of each.” Well, precise data is hard to come by. But let’s start with the crack bears.
According to The Guardian, it was “unable to find a documented incident of any of Florida’s estimated population of 4,050 black bears having ingested crack, and Shoaf did not return a request for clarification.” Of course, people sometimes use the phrase “on crack” to describe a person or thing that seems to be acting as if it were on crack, not necessarily meaning they believe crack has actually been ingested. I was willing to give Shoaf the benefit of the doubt on that until he doubled down in the next sentence by using the term “crack bears.” And as The Guardian noted, this is Florida we’re talking about, a state that “in recent times has boasted cocaine sharks and marauding herpes-ridden monkeys.” (Emphasis added.)
Well, monkeys have been up to no good for years now. See, e.g., “Plaintiff: I Was Attacked by Wayne Newton’s Monkey” (Aug. 15, 2019); “Monkey Impersonators Hired to Deal With Parliament’s ‘Big Monkey Menace‘” (Aug. 1, 2014). The acquisition of herpes by Florida monkeys is news to me, and hopefully also to you, but they’ve always been troublemakers. But “cocaine sharks”?
Maybe. I somehow missed the “Cocaine Sharks” episode of last year’s “Shark Week,” an episode in which the Discovery Channel examined whether “peculiar behavior” exhibited by sharks in Florida waters might be explained by stray “cocaine bales” dropped by smugglers. There are plenty of those floating around Florida, apparently, but whether sharks are snorting them up is another question. And frankly, the experiments described, which involved “dummy bales” and balls of “highly concentrated fish powder,” seem less than conclusive.
Known killjoy Scientific American was also skeptical. Swiss researchers have given cocaine to zebra fish, it noted (because why wouldn’t you), but it didn’t affect the fish, or at least didn’t make them violent. The magazine also pointed out that the recent film Cocaine Bear, which featured “a black bear going on a cocaine-fueled rampage,” was not actually a documentary. It was “very loosely” based on a real 1985 event in which a bear ate a lot of cocaine, SA noted, but that bear just died. It did not, in other words, “break your door down and stand in your living room growling and tearing your house apart” in a crack-induced frenzy, the concern Shoaf cited to the committee.
But let’s say he was just using “crack bears” as a figure of speech. Have bears, drug-addled or otherwise, been ravaging Florida homes lately? Seems like the answer is no, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. According to its table of “documented incidents of physical contact between a person and a black bear in Florida,” on average there have been about 2.2 of these per year since 2006. That seems roughly consistent with this report about a January 2022 bear attack, describing it as the 14th attack “resulting in moderate to severe injuries” since the FWC started keeping records in 1976. So, do bear attacks happen? Yes. Can they be serious? Yes. Have any of them involved home invasions? According to the Orlando Sentinel, “we couldn’t find a case where a bear went any further than a front porch.”
Still, you can’t be too careful, and after all, the people of Florida should have the right to defend themselves (and their pets and living rooms). But as opponents of HB 87 have pointed out, they already do. In fact—and especially in Florida—you’d have the right to shoot a human who broke your door down and came in growling and tearing your house apart, at least if you could have “reasonably believed” the use of lethal force “was necessary to avoid an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” to a person or pet or (probably) a living room. So it’s hard to see why a bill is necessary to guarantee the right to kill a bear in that situation. For that matter, as the Sentinel also noted, you aren’t going to be charged with anything if you really have to shoot a bear in self-defense, wherever that might happen, just like this guy wasn’t charged.
What also seems like a good anti-anti-crack-bear-bill argument is the Sentinel‘s point that encouraging people to blaze away at bears is not necessarily going to increase safety. If a bear is on someone’s property, then usually other people live nearby, and a missed shot could cause problems for them. And if you don’t miss, but don’t kill the bear, then the wounded bear might cause problems for you, when it otherwise might just have run away. This is why the FWC’s advice is to avoid or deter bears, try to scare them off, or preferably call the FWC to come deal with them. But as it points out on the same page, “[a]nyone can [legally] defend themselves or another person [or pet] from imminent threat of injury or death posed by any wildlife species.” Whether that species is on crack or not.