TAMPA, Fla. – Florida officials announced the arrests of nine people Wednesday following a yearlong investigation into illegal baiting, taking and molestation of black bears.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said Wednesday during a news conference held at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa that the suspects lured the bears using pastries, drums of dog food, bags of doughnuts and dozens of gallons of peanut butter before having packs of hunting dogs attack them.
[WATCH: Bear safety tips from FWC]
The suspects also recorded the attacks and posted them on social media to advertise their training of the hunting dogs, Bondi said.
At least two bears have been confirmed dead as a result of the suspects' actions, but Bondi said some of the videos, which showed bears being chased up trees and either knocked off by someone who climbed the tree or the bears falling from branches, led her to believe more have died than they know of right now.
She said some of the bears being tortured were less than 1 week old.
According to Bondi, the suspects were using the videos to "drum up business" for hunting dogs, since they were training them.
“It was for profit, but I believe it was for their own sick pleasure," Bondi said.
She said the videos made her sick to her stomach and called it torture.
Bondi also said it was clear in the videos that some of the dogs didn't want to attack the bears, but the suspects were taking their leashes off and laughing about it. She called the incidents animal cruelty for both the bears and dogs.
According to Bondi, the investigation began after social media users questioned the legality of the videos being posted online.
Florida Fish and Wildlife officials then set up surveillance at a Krispy Kreme and saw some of the suspects going to the business after hours and taking hundreds of bags of doughnuts from the dumpsters to use as bait, Bondi said during the conference.
The investigation began 11 months ago and led authorities to the conclusion that the incidents involving the mistreatment of the bears had taken place in Baker, Flagler, Marion and Union counties, Bondi said.
The videos were being used online to advertise across the country, state officials said.
Bondi said she believes this is the first case of its magnitude, with nine people, including 42-year-old Christopher Haun, of Ormond Beach, facing multiple charges. Haun is charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, animal fighting or baiting, littering and unlawful taking of a black bear, FWC officials said.
In addition to the charges listed above, some of the suspects are also facing charges of animal cruelty and the unlawful use of a two-way communication device, according to the FWC.
If convicted, they could face up to 30 years behind bars for just the racketeering charge, the attorney general said.
The state has seized 53 dogs as property so far, but Bondi said she believes there are a lot more dogs involved, including some out of state.
Bondi said some of the dogs' owners sent them to Florida to be trained for hunting purposes, and it's unclear if they knew the dogs were involved in the attacks. State officials said the Humane Society is working to reunite those dogs with their owners.
It is illegal to hunt bears in Florida, according to Bondi.
The FWC and Bondi said the suspects' actions do not represent the respect ethical hunters and others have for conservation, the outdoors and Florida's natural resources.
“We're here at Lowry Park Zoo, where they are saving these animals lives so kids can grow up in Florida and know what a Florida black bear is, and then they're trying to wipe out our population of them in a sick and inhumane way, and it will not be tolerated in our state nor in our country,” Bondi said.