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florida black bear cub

Rescued Bear Cub to Live in Homosassa

By Diane Bedard Posted on August 1, 2019

The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Wildlife State Park is part of a cooperative effort between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and state-wide bear rehabilitation facilities. Each year, up to 11 rescued Florida Black bears are given to the park for rehabilitation and release back into the wild, but Park visitors never see them.

“We have a 100% success rate for our rehabilitated bears,” shared Andrea Junkunc, Park Services Specialist, at the first viewing of their latest project, Maximus.

Maximus, the Orphaned Baby Black Bear to Live at Wildlife Park

On Wednesday, July 31, 2019, the six-month old bear cub was introduced to the public. A bundle of ebony fur, Maximus bounds into his life as the newest permanent resident at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park!

He was rambunctious and curious when NatureCoaster visited, playing with the water in his trough and eventually sat up in it, like a bathtub. He climbed the walls of his chain link temporary habitat, pulled on saw palmetto leaves, tasted sticks and everything else he could.

Maximus the orphaned Florida Black bear cub got into his water trough, using it like a bathtub when introduced to the public Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Image by Diane Bedard.

Max is simply adorable.

Being the first day he was interacting with the public, the Wildlife Care team had several members looking after him. “We are pleased with how well he is doing on his first day of seeing so many new people,” Trisha explained.

Although he has been bottle-fed, cleaned, crate trained, and bonded with his caregivers, it is a big first step for an orphaned wild animal to meet a crowd – even if they are all fans.

Max seemed to take it all in stride, playing with everything within his grasp like a little bear should.

Homosassa Springs wildlife care team
There is an entire Wildlife Care Team at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, headed up by Trisha Fowler. Together they rehabilitate some of Florida’s orphaned wild animals. They came out on Wednesday to help Max transition to his public encounters. Image by Diane Bedard

How Maximus came to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Born in the wild in February, young Maximus was orphaned by his mother in the Florida panhandle for unknown reasons. He was found by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) weighing a mere four pounds at the time of rescue. Fortunately, Maximus’ mother is a tagged and collared Florida Black bear, so FWC was aware of the situation.

max florida black bear cub
Max playing in the rehabilitation area of the Wildlife Park. Image courtesy of Joe Dube.

The tiny young bear received medical care and around-the-clock supervision, requiring frequent feedings. Despite caregivers’ best efforts, FWC deemed the young bear non-releasable and it just happened that there was space available for a permanent resident bear at Homosassa.

Maximus the Orphaned Bear Cub receives Committed Care at the Park

At the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Wildlife State Park, Darin Wilson was given the opportunity to care for Maximus. As a Ranger who has been part of the Wildlife Care team for 2 years, Darin is thrilled to be working with ‘Max’.

Darin with Max
Darin Wilson interacts with Maximus. Darin has been given the job of bonding with Max to help in his care and training. Image courtesy of Diane Bedard

Max was about 11 pounds when he came to the Wildlife Park in March. Darin has been working closely with the bear cub, bonding with him. He teaches Max crate training, as well as cleaning and feeding him.

“How many people can say they bond with a bear for their job?” Darin tells me with a wide grin on his face and palpable joy. “The bond is great for enrichment for Max, and for me.”

Max is nearly 40 pounds now. He is fed fruits, vegetables and omnivore food. He also gets dog food as a protein source to help him grow strong – and two smoothies a day!

maximus bear
Maximus the baby bear will be on display at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30 – 3:30 pm. Image courtesy of Joe Dube.

Homosassa Wildlife State Park helps to Rehabilitate and Release Orphaned Bears Year-Round

“Florida’s only Wildlife State Park not only works in cooperation with FWC to rehabilitate orphaned black bears and release them back into the wild, but also has the facilities to house several non-releasable bears,” says Kate Spratt, the Park’s Service Specialist.

There are facilities to rehabilitate up to 11 bears at the Park. These are behind the scenes and manned by the Wildlife Care team, headed up by Trisha Fowler.

black bear at wildlife park
Trisha Fowler leads an amazing and committed team of wildlife biologists, specialists and volunteers who rehabilitate Florida’s orphaned wildlife. Here she is answering questions from the public as she interacts with the Wildlife Park’s newest resident.
Image courtesy of Diane Bedard

“Bears are typically born in February and brought to the Park by June for rehabilitation. We try to get them ready to go back to their natural environments by January of the following year when they are big enough to safely integrate,” Andrea Junkunc explains. “FWC tracks the bears and none of our bears have been found after release.”

Managing and Integrating Homosassa’s Newest Resident with the Park

“We will be bringing Max out on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30-3:30 for the public to see until he is old enough to safely enjoy the Park’s bear habitat without supervision,” Trisha Fowler tells the onlookers, “He will be living in the bear rehabilitation area until then. When he is mature enough, we will bring him to the Florida Black bear habitat for a day, with Biddy living in the rehabilitation area and then exchange them, giving both an opportunity for solitude and public interaction.”

max by joe dube
Each orphaned bear is taught the skills that its mother would have trained it for by the staff. Because Max was so young and tiny when rescued, FWC deemed him unable to return to the wild. He will be an ambassador for his species at the Park. Image courtesy of Joe Dube.

With Max not being Biddy’s offspring, it is unwise to put them together.

Florida Black Bears are part of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park’s History

Prior to Maximus’ arrival, the State Park housed one adult Florida black bear, Biddy. She arrived with her twin brother, Brutus, as cubs in the early 2000s, residing at the Park ever since. With the passing of Brutus in 2018, Biddy has been the only resident Florida black bear in the park.

black bears
Brutus and Biddy were brother and sister black bear residents of the park until Brutus passed away in 2018. Photo by Joe Dube

“Bears tend to be solitary creatures,” Andrea explains. “Biddy enjoys her solitude as bears in the wild typically keep to themselves.”

Keeping this in mind, Biddy and the newcomer Maximus will spend time on exhibit separately, following a rotating schedule like that of the panthers who reside at the Park.

Volunteers are the Heartbeat of this Wildlife State Park

On Wednesday, July 31, Park volunteer Mary Ann Desimone explained about Florida Black bears, including their eating habits, life expectancy, typical lifestyle and range. She answered questions for the 40 or so visitors who came to greet Maximus on his first day interacting with the public.

Mary Ann Desimone
Mary Ann Desimone, 24-year Park Volunteer is a two time graduate of bear college where she learned about the Florida Black bear and how to best communicate that information to the public. She is seen here on July 31, 2019 answering questions at Maximus’ first public exhibition. Image by Diane Bedard

“I have been to bear college twice in the 1990s, the ‘Cubs for Kids’ training. I love animals, teaching and interacting with children,” Mary Ann explains about how she acquired her knowledge of Florida Black bears. She has been volunteering at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park for 24 years.

Interested in coming to the park to view the young Maximus?

maximus florida black bear
Come to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and meet Max. He is so cute and full of energy that you will be glad you did! Image courtesy of Joe Dube.

Maximus, the orphaned Florida Black bear, will be in a special exhibit located on the Wildlife Walk across from the bobcats on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 2:30pm to 3:30pm, weather permitting, until he is mature enough to release into the bear habitat.

Visitors to the park may see Maximus at that time and speak with a ranger about him.

The park entrance is located at 4150 S Suncoast Blvd. in Homosassa. Hours are 9 am to 5:30 pm daily, with last entry at 4:45 pm. The cost for entry is Adults (age 13+) $13, Children (ages 6-12) $5, Children 5 and under, free. For more information, call the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park office at 352-628-5343.

Postscript: Special thanks to Joe Dube for the excellent photos of Max and to the Wildlife Care Team at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park for taking the time to answer our questions – and their commitment to Florida’s wildlife.


Alex says

Great article: very well-written with wonderful photos of Maximus. I just have one comment with regard to the success rate of rehabilitated bears. I wanted to clarify that this success rate pertains to releases only. It has nothing to do with the number of orphaned cubs that have actually survived once released. FWC has been releasing bears for years in the Big Bend region and there is still no evidence of a breeding population. It is misleading to say that these bears are "tracked," since they do not have radio-collars. The only way they can track is if one of these bears gets into "trouble" or is otherwise killed and retrieved. Thanks for a wonderful article! It was great being there to meet Maximus on his debut. Tricia Fowler and her team is the absolute best and I am proud to be a volunteer at Florida's only wildlife state park!


Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ says

Alex, thank you for your clarifications. It is always hard to interpret things correctly, although we do try. It's thanks to NatureCoasters like you that we can get the whole truth out there. So glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for all you do at the Park. It's one of my favorites. I Love Max too!


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