By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Guess who's coming to dinner? In the leafy far suburbs of Orlando, the uncomfortable answer increasingly is a Florida black bear.
Calls about bears, including reports of sick or injured ones, more than quadrupled in Florida over the past decade, according to statistics maintained by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2012 alone, the commission received 6,159 calls - an average of 17 a day.
More than half of actual complaints come from central Florida, where urban sprawl has brought more people into former wilderness areas near or adjacent to the 600-square-mile (1,550-square-km) Ocala National Forest, fracturing bear habitat and plopping homes alongside long-established bear trails.
At the same time, the state bear population has rebounded to more than 3,000 from several hundred in the 1970s, thanks to measures to protect them from extinction, according to the state's fish and wildlife commission.
A bear attack on a Longwood, Florida, woman walking her dogs last Monday evening, though a rare occurrence, focused attention on both the perils and wonder of co-existing with wildlife.
Susan Chalfant, 54, told neighbors who found her bleeding profusely from the head that she did not see the bear that knocked her to the ground.
"They're in backyards here, on the main roads here, as well as deer. It's a wonderful sight to see just 10 to 15 miles from downtown Orlando," said Emil "Skip" Scipioni, community association manager for the Springs, a nearby subdivision.
Scipioni said all new residents at the Springs went through an orientation that includes education about living with black bears. The key to successful co-existence is to avoid feeding the animals, even inadvertently.
Bears helping themselves to the remains of a fast-food meal in trash cans and exposed refrigerators in garages, or to unprotected crops, account for more than 40 percent of calls to the state and lead directly to worse encounters later, wildlife officers said.
"They're big, hungry, smart animals, and like many of us they will take the path of least resistance. If food is left out for them, they will eat a feast and become habituated," said Laurie Macdonald, director of the Florida chapter of Defenders of Wildlife.
Bears can smell food from over a mile away and will travel great distances to track down the source of a tempting odor. The calories a bear can consume by picking through one garbage can often surpasses the forage they can find in an entire day, wildlife officials say.
'QUITE A SHOCK'
Nancy Payton, a field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation in Naples, gets calls weekly from new homeowners, many of whom bought relatively inexpensive homes in the interior of the state and are surprised by the sight of a bear in the backyard.
"It never occurred to them they were moving into a wildlife area," Payton said. "They get quite a shock. Of course, they want us to come take them away. There's no place to take them."
Payton said she was having some success encouraging developers in southwest Florida, where panthers are a bigger issue, to raise awareness by including wildlife co-existence plans in home-buyer documents.
Some developers consider the wildlife a marketing tool for what they call a green community, she said. But ultimately, home buyers are responsible for understanding what they are moving into, Payton said.
"I think it's more the burden of due diligence for the prospective home buyer, just like you would check out the schools," she said.
"Literally half the time I go out, I see a bear if there is a moon," said Richard, one of Chalfant's neighbors and rescuers who talked with reporters about the incident on condition his last name be withheld for privacy.
Whereas screams in the night might signal a crime in progress to an urban resident, Chalfant's shrieks of terror meant only one thing to Richard.
"Obviously, I thought of a bear and a bear attack," he said.
He was one of those who purchased a house in bear country unawares, and later bought dogs to protect his home.
State wildlife officers have yet to determine whether the bear that slashed Chalfant was startled and reacted defensively as in most human-bear encounters, or sought her out. A 200-pound (90-kg) female bear trapped two days later in the area and suspected of being Chalfant's attacker was euthanized, a common outcome for bears showing aggression around people.
Bear threats to humans account for less than 1 percent of all calls to state wildlife authorities, according to state statistics.
"We respect them. We try not to encourage them, try to manage the garbage," said Richard. "However, it seems like it isn't enough."
(Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)