SEBRING, Fla - An 81-year-old Sebring woman is behind bars tonight for repeatedly feeding black bears at home after being warned to stop by a judge multiple times.
Mary Musselman, of 5240 Kenilworth Boulevard, is now facing charges ranging from violating probation to battery on a law enforcement officer.
"I think it is outrageous," said Karron Tedder, Musselman's former student.
In the small town of Sebring, Musselman is well known. She is a retired gym teacher who worked at the local middle school.
Tedder described her as gentle hearted, sweet and someone who is harmless.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officials told ABC Action News trouble with Musselman began last year when they had to euthanize a black bear she kept feeding.
"Feeding bears results in bears losing their fear of people," explained Gary Morse, FWC spokesperson.
He added that once those behaviors are learned a bear cannot be relocated. The behaviors interrupt the animal's natural instincts.
Morse said officers 'went the extra mile' to educate Musselman about the dangers of feeding wildlife. They brought out educational videos, talked with her and left pamphlets.
"She told us she wasn't going to stop," Morse recalled.
And, she didn't.
She even continued on after being issued a warning on Nov. 8.
FWC officers went back to her property on Nov. 19 and reported that Musselman was feeding two more bears. At this point, officers came back with more educational videos.
Then, on Dec. 4, Musselman was issued a notice to appear in court on Dec. 6.
The judge ordered her to stop feeding all wild animals and FWC officers were ordered to check on her residence weekly.
According to FWC officers, on Dec. 24, Musselman again appeared in court and admitted feeding two to three bears large amounts of food.
"We are talking about putting out as many as 17 or 18 bowls of dog food," Morse explained.
A judge found her guilty of two counts of feeding wildlife. She was placed on probation for one year and FWC officers were ordered to visit her home weekly.
On Dec. 29, FWC officers say they found evidence Musselman was continuing to feed bears.
"Unfortunately, she didn't heed the warnings," Morse said.
A judge ordered FWC officers to arrest her.
According to Morse, when FWC officers arrested Musselman, she threatened to kill the officers and resisted.
Morse said Musselman put her neighbors and the community at risk.
"Feeding wildlife puts the community at risk from property destruction to possible danger of life and limb," he explained.
Musselman reportedly told officers she had to feed the bears or they would starve to death.
"She didn't want to accept that fact that they'd be fine without her...they hibernate when there is no food," Morse added.
Tedder said Musselman is an avid animal lover.
Musselman's former students, some from four decades ago, gathered out front of her home and prayed Thursday night. They have tried to bail her out but she is being held without bond.
Her former students fear Musselman cannot fully comprehend the judges orders or the seriousness of the charges.
"This is out of her character to act as she did," Tedder said.
Tedder added that Musselman would not have intentionally broken the law.
Musselman's former students want to get her back home as soon as possible because her husband is dying of cancer.
They say the couple has no children and no caregiver.
They are also working to find a mental health advocate to go before a judge on her behalf.
Musselman is slated appear before a judge on March 3.
FWC EXPERTS CANVASSED COUNTY
According to Morse, between October of last year and January of this year, FWC staff and volunteers canvassed hundreds of homes in the Sebring and Lake Placid area with information about how to live with bears and help conserve them, without creating the conditions that spawn nuisance, destructive, and potentially dangerous behavior.
Staff even appeared on a radio show on WWOJ to promote the attitudes and actions that make living in bear country safe for everyone, including the bears, Morse said.
To learn more about black bears, click here .