Local News

Woman, 81, accused of feeding bears back in jail

SEBRING - Less than a month after a judge granted pretrial release for an 81-year-old woman accused of illegally feeding bears, she's back in the Highlands County Jail.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers arrested Mary Musselman Monday evening after finding three food stations for animals on her property at 5240 Kenilworth Blvd., Sebring.

On Tuesday, County Judge Anthony Ritenour decided that Musselman would remain in Highlands County Jail without bond.

Authorities said Musselman has continued to feed bears or other wildlife, despite being ordered otherwise. FWC authorities say it's illegal to feed bears because they lose their fear of humans and end up becoming more of a threat.

At least for now, Musselman will apparently remain in jail until another security facility that can evaluate her mental status and provide her help is found, Assistant State Attorney Gary Ellis said.

Although her husband and another man pledged to watch Musselman and make sure she didn't feed animals, Ellis said, she eluded them and waited until her husband left to get breakfast.

An FWC officer said he found evidence of that when he observed "three separate wildlife feeding stations around her residence," an incident report states. "The first feeding station consisted of bread crumbs, the second was a pile consisting of approximately a 1/2 cup of bird feed/cracked corn, and the third feeding station consisted of approximately a 1/2 cup of bird feed/ cracked corn along with a white salt lick block. There were also pans filled with water at the feeding stations."

When confronted about the feeding stations, "Mrs. Musselman stated she put the bread out to feed the crows and cracked corn for the squirrels. She also stated it was not against the law to feed birds and squirrels. I observed that all of the food items would be easily accessible to a feeding bear."

William Fletcher, Musselman's attorney, said he urged Ritenour to set bond for her. Fletcher said that he believes Musselman suffers from dementia and Alzheimer's disease and doesn't remember or have a full understanding of previous orders.

Fletcher also noted that recently Musselman pleaded guilty to two counts of feeding bears. He said she didn't have an attorney at that time, and taking into account her mental state, he may try to get those guilty pleas withdrawn.

Musselman, a former teacher, has no prior criminal history, Fletcher added, but Ellis said he believes she knows right from wrong.

That's evident, Ellis said, because she waited until her husband went out to eat before putting out the food.

While some people continue to question putting Musselman in jail, Ellis said, they've given her several chances to stop feeding animals.

He said he's also concerned something could happen if Musselman continues feeding bears and authorities don't stop her.

"A mother clutching her dead child is going to want to know why," Ellis said. "She's not going to care if she (the woman feeding the bears) is 23 or 83."

One neighbor voiced concerns about safety.

Jen Schreiner, who lives on Mini Ranch Road, in the area where Musselman lives, is concerned about the safety of the children and her four dogs.

"My smallest is my basset hound, but if she gets back in the wooded area and the bears are being fed she is going to get hurt," she said.

About two or three months ago, Schreiner's stepdaughter and her friend saw a bear.

"Her friend who lives down the block, the bear was in her driveway and the girls had to come here because they couldn't go any further," Schreiner said. "There's kids in the neighborhood; it's not safe."

But on Facebook, there was mixed reactions to the arrest.

Corrie Padelford wrote: "This is outrageous... all i can think of is my grandmother and how she loved any animal and would feed anything that she felt needed to eat from people to wild animals. This lady is 81 and deserves to be happy; if feeding birds is illegal we would all be in jail."

But Devon Wilson had a different perspective.

"Come on people they are not arresting her because she fed the birds. She was told by a judge and wildlife officers to quit feeding any wildlife including birds until the bears moved on. One bear had to be put down because of her. She was even named the bear and it was approaching her. Maybe when a bear attacks a young child or something maybe everyone will realize she isn't just feeding her birds. If you want someone to be upset with why is a family member or friend not checking on her and making sure she doesn't feed the birds," he said.


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