University of Kentucky

Mike Orlando ’03 AG: Works to reduce human-bear conflict in Florida

UK alum teaches how to live harmoniously - and safely - in bear populated areas.

                                                                                                        Photo credit: Cathy Connolly FWC Bear Management

Most children don’t dream of growing up to become a bear manager, but that’s exactly what Mike Orlando ’03 AG does for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Specifically, he works to reduce human-bear conflict in the northeast part of the state, around Orlando and up through the Osceola National Forest near Jacksonville.

“People like bears, even if they don’t,” says Orlando. “There is always a human-bear conflict that’s interesting to people.” And that interest can be detrimental to the bears’ survival, not to mention potentially dangerous to humans. Florida listed bears as threatened a little over 40 years ago and seriously began protecting their habitat. For the most part, bears live on public wilderness lands, but they can be adventurers and often leave the wild to explore the suburbs nearby. That’s when a good bear manager comes into play.

Orlando spends a great deal of his time speaking to groups about how to live more harmoniously and safely in a bear populated area. “Bears are smart animals,” he says. “The challenge is how to outsmart the bears and teach people to live in the same area with little conflict.” His favorite part of his role is problem solving—thinking of new ideas, looking to technology for answers — all to reduce the human-bear conflict.

He is also called on occasion to help capture a bear in order to return it to its natural habitat. Probably the most locally-famous example happened last August when he helped successfully capture a mother and her cubs in order to free one cub’s head from a pickle jar, which was preventing the cub from eating or drinking. Bears often become victims of their own curiosity when they forage through unattended human garbage. Orlando and his team saved the cub’s life and were able to return both mother and cubs back to the forest.

So how does one become a bear manager? Born in Cape Coral, Orlando was an adventurer right from the start. After earning a biology degree from the University of Florida, he was contacted by the late David Maehr, wildlife biologist and UK professor of forestry, about working on a Florida bear project in the master’s program at UK. Orlando jumped at the opportunity to work with Maehr. “He was one of the greats. Working with him was a big deal,” says Orlando. “He became one of my best friends and my mentor.”

While working toward his masters at UK, and after graduation, Orlando worked in Eastern Kentucky at Kingdom Come State Park where he helped start the Black Bear Project. He then had a brief stint in the Peace Corps where he focused on wildlife. He settled in as bear manager with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2004.

He now lives in Deland, Fla., with his wife, Amy, whom he met while in school at UF, and their five-year-old son, Nolan. Orlando says they will soon be a family of four. In his free time, when he’s not catching bears or teaching Florida residents how to safely interact with them, Orlando likes to work on catching a much smaller, and less endangered animal — fish.