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The Florida black bear stars in a coming film about the Panhandle

Three bears playing at a river
Three bears playing at a river

Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed a controversial measure allowing people to kill bears on their property if they feel threatened by them. It’s in effect as of July 1st. But as a film being made in the Panhandle shows, we have a lot to learn about the Florida black bear.

The footage is remarkable…close-ups of a mother bear and her cub deep in their habitat. Climbing, playing, even looking into the camera’s eye.

Arix Zalace got those shots by living with bears in the Panhandle for two-and-a-half years.

Before getting any footage, though, he had to learn how to be with them. His ground rules were never to do anything to harm them and never to do anything to alter their behavior.

“I would never stand in front of them. I was always on all fours," he said. "I always had a ghillie suit on. If you don’t know what that is, it’s…If you see one of those Army movies and all of a sudden, the bush stands up and it was actually a guy. So, I would always have a ghillie suit on. I would never speak a human language, so over the two-and-a-half year period, I learned how to speak black bear and actually communicated with them in their language, which is how I learned how they communicated and how they talk.”

Zalace is the director and co-founder of The Paper Bear organization, which is making the film. It’s also the film’s name. Zalace says he can’t explain why, or he’ll be giving away too much about the film.

“It centers around the Panhandle of Florida as a whole and the biodiversity hot spot that it is," he said, "which very few people in the country and specifically in Florida realize – that the Panhandle of Florida is an incredibly important area of the country in terms of biodiversity. It’s literally America’s Little Amazon.”

Zalace says the bears play a huge role in this, consuming more than 30,000 seeds, nuts and berries a day and spreading them across the habitat.

And in the film, the story about the Panhandle is told through the eyes of a black bear.

Florida had about 4,050 bears, according to a 2017 estimate by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the most recent available data. The numbers had fallen to between 300 to 500 bears in the 1970s, but the species was able to rebound while listed by the state as threatened.

Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, who supports the new law, said that as the bear population has grown, more bears are living where humans do – and it’s a problem.

“We have bears in cars, we have bears in people’s homes, we have bears on their porches," he said. "We have bears coming to bus stops where kids are. I think we’ve had a couple of bears attack animals. We have not had, since I’ve been sheriff, an attack on a person. We’ve had a lot of close calls.”

Smith said Franklin is the third-smallest county in Florida, and humans live on about five percent of it. The rest is national and state forest.

“These bears are born and bred in these areas," he said. "They don’t know anyplace else but the populated areas because that’s where they were born and bred.”

When the bear bill passed in the 2024 legislative session, Zalace came to speak in committee and was troubled by what he heard.

“They were saying, ‘The bear did this, the bear did that.’ And in my mind, I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh, the things you’re describing are actually the opposite of what you’re thinking. That’s actually the bear telling you it’s not going to hurt you.’ And then when they say, ‘The bear did this and it was fine,’ I’m going no, no, no, that means the bear is actually not fine. If it gets eerily quiet and turns its head sideways, that’s a sign that it’s potentially feeling threatened.”

Zalace says black bears are shy, and that they can smell a ripe berry a mile away. Which may explain why they get in people’s garbage cans.

“If as a culture and as a society we decide we’re going to protect a species, then as a culture and as a society, it is our responsibility to educate on how to live with that species again," he said. "Because there’s a reason that species was almost wiped out, and it’s usually because humans didn’t like what they were doing or misunderstood…”

Zalace expects the film will be shown early next year, he hopes at a major film festival.



"The Paper Bear" project began before House Bill 87 was proposed last year and not in response to it.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.