Children and Catholics and Bears, Oh My!

As most of you know, we live in Ave Maria, Florida. This teeny-tiny town was built around the university of the same name, where the Ogre teaches. The best way to describe Ave Maria is to describe it as it is: imagine a swamp. Now imagine a beautiful, perfectly manicured town dropped in the middle of that swamp. Add the biggest church on the planet, statues galore, Catholic street signs, some little shops, a rockin’ pub and coffee shop, and ten billion children. Sprinkle on some alligators, panthers, and every oversized and freaky-looking insect God ever dreamed up, and you have just imagined Ave Maria.

Ave is a small town. Like, really small. Like, I don’t go to the curb to get my trash cans and bring them back in unless I’ve washed my hair and gotten dressed small. The nearest big city is Naples, a solid 45 minute drive from the gates of our quaint little swampy oasis. As such, people here get a little bored. Sometimes we gossip. Sometimes we pick fights with each other. Sometimes we have impromptu block parties. But then sometimes, God sees fit to send us something a little…special, to break up the summertime monotony.

This summer, it’s bears. Bears. Plural.

Bears have always been a fact of life around here…or so the natives tell me. We’ve only been here seven months, and for the first few months we heard bears but never saw them. Then, early this summer, we started seeing occasional little messages on the Ave facebook page. Friendly warnings, like, “I was just walking my dog and saw a bear in the empty lot on Taylor Dr.!” or “my wife saw a bear in Emerson when she was driving home!” No big deal. Just neighbors looking out for each other.

And then. And then, when we were on Marco Island in July, we missed this:

Photo courtesy of Daniel Dix

That’s a bear, in case you live in a civilized place and have never seen one up close. That’s a bear outside our rockin’ little coffee shop…which he chased the owner into. That’s a bear who is clearly not happy hanging out in his native habitat. And check out his glowing eyes…that’s an evil bear. That bear wants to eat your soul.

Right after this picture was snapped and posted to the Ave message board, an argument about the best way to deal with the bear immediately ensued. Several people pointed out (quite rightly) that the bear was being lured to town by our garbage, and that we should lock it up and not punish the bear for being a bear. Other people pointed out (quite rightly) that regardless of why the bear was in town, the bear was still in town, a town populated mostly by small children, and that we should be primarily concerned about our kids and not about the welfare of the bear.

My heart, however, was won by the people who pointed this out:


Because, yum, right?

So while the controversy was simmering among the townsfolk, the bear was busy familiarizing himself with the lay of our land. He quickly settled on a neighborhood to terrorize the most…my neighborhood, naturally. Also the neighborhood with the largest variety of tasty young children running around.

Now, I can think of a lot of positives to having a bear around. First, the bears probably keep away the alligators, and I’d honestly rather face a bear than an alligator. Alligators just seem so…dirty. And they have a lot more teeth. Second, it provides interesting fodder for conversation. If all the townspeople are focused on the bear, we’re less likely to focus on each other, right? Less gossip. Third, nothing provides more inspiration for constant conversion than the likelihood that a bear might eat you every time you walk out your front door. It’s actually kind of in keeping with the spirit of Ave Maria. If the giant church and the plethora of statues don’t get you considering the state of your soul, if the constant presence of townspeople doing the rosary walk don’t get you examining your conscience, if driving down Annunciation Blvd doesn’t make you think twice about that music you’re blasting, in short, if all else fails, perhaps the threat of a bear sending you to your eternal rest will force you to consider whether or not that rest is going to be as comfortable as it could be. I mean, it can’t be a coincidence that I’ve been to confession twice as many times in the past month as I went in the four months before that, right?

Alas, all the good that could come of having a friendly neighborhood bear hanging around faded like smoke in the wind when it became apparent that the bear was not exactly friendly…and that there were more than one of him.

The bear ripped through someone’s lanai in an effort to reach their simmering spaghetti sauce (no, I’m not kidding, and a lanai is a screened-in porch, if you’re not from Florida or have never seen Golden Girls). The bear chased several screaming townsfolk through their neighborhoods at night. The bear tried to eat Mr. Ecko, our neighbor’s awesome dog. The bear visited every house on our street, including mine, pulled our trash out of our garbage cans (which had been set out in anticipation of the trash being picked up the next morning), dragged it up to our front doors, and proceeded to feast, leaving desecration in its enormous path. (The awesome 10 year old next door actually got up before I was even awake and cleaned up my yard for me, because he felt so sorry for me with my big ol’ belly. I made him cupcakes.) The bear horrifically became two bears, as several people testified on facebook after having seen them together.

In the wake of all the horror and chaos, the good people of Ave Maria have reached a consensus on the book of face:

The bear must be stopped.

The bear must be stopped because of this:


That’s right behind the Student Union, by the way, the Student Union which will be filled with several hundred college students later this week.

The bear must be stopped because everyone in Ave Maria is afraid to go outside after dark and before 8 am, the college kids come back this week, and have you ever tried to tell college students to stay inside after dark? Yeah. That’ll go over real well.

The problem is, how? We can’t shoot the bear because it’s protected friggin’ wildlife. The police can shoot the bear, but only if it’s actively chasing someone, and remember how I said at the beginning of this post that Ave Maria is in the middle of a swamp? I was so not kidding about that. Last night someone got chased into their house by the bear, called the cops, and the cops showed up promptly an hour later. The thing is, it takes them a while to get here, and half the time they get lost amid the confusing roads and multiple canals. The only people who have any actual authority over the bear population are the lovely folks over at Florida Fish and Wildlife, and they are refusing to help because they believe that if they remove the bears too quickly, we (the townsfolk) won’t modify our reckless behavior (setting trash cans out at night to be picked up in the morning instead of waiting until just before the trash people come (oh and no, they never come at the same time)). So basically the people in charge of this situation don’t feel that we’re in enough danger for us to change our habits, and they should wait until, oh, I don’t know, a kid gets eaten, so that we’ll take seriously our responsibility to secure our trash.

Instead of removing the bears that are endangering our children and the college kids and poor Mr. Ecko, Florida Fish and Wildlife are trying to use the presence of bears to modify our behavior.

Personally, this annoys the hell out of me. It annoys me because children, my children, my neighbors’ children, and hundreds of other people’s college-aged children, are in danger. It annoys me because it devalues human life. It annoys me because this country wasn’t settled by frontier people hacking into the wilderness and then securing their trash. This country was settled by people hacking into the wilderness and then hacking into the wildlife population. But mostly it annoys me because of the overwhelming cold-blooded condescension of people trying to use a dangerous situation for behavioral modification.

And just in case any of us in Ave Maria get any crazy ideas in our heads, like buying shotguns so we can protect our children, it turns out that Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law doesn’t apply to bears. Only humans. In fact, under Florida law, a person cannot kill an endangered or threatened species. Notice how there’s no exception for self-defense there.

That is insane. It is insane that we can kill other people who threaten us, but we can’t kill animals who threaten us. It is insane that under our legal system, animals are given a higher level of protection than human beings. I’ve honestly never thought too much about the whole PETA movement, other than to be vaguely annoyed by it from a distance, but now I find that I can’t avoid the issue because it’s not just a theoretical issue. While I spent most of my life brushing off the “ethical treatment for animals” issue as “someone else’s problem,” laws were put in place that now directly affect my family. It’s now my problem, and I have no legal recourse to deal with it except to keep my kids locked up in the house.

I’m actually frightened by the extremity of the laws here in Florida, and the utter disinterest the authorities have in protecting human life. But I’m mostly frightened by my own culpability in it all. What else have I ignored for years, because it didn’t apply to me, because it wasn’t my problem, because it wasn’t an issue in my community, and what’s being done in the meantime to ensure that when it is my problem, I’ll have no protection and no allies?

I’m afraid that when I find out, it’ll make black bears look pretty tame in comparison.

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