Monday, April 09, 2007

The ethics of Bear Keeping

Meet Cherry Bomb. She's a one year old grizzly and tips the scales at about 200 pounds. Isn't she cute? I think so, and I love photographing her every chance I get.

Cherry Bomb is owned by our neighbors Howard and Monica, who also have two Malayan moon bears, Teddy and Bruno. Teddy and Bruno weigh about 500 pounds
each. They're equally photogenic, but for different reasons. Where Cherry Bomb recalls images of the wild frontier, Teddy and Bruno are the comic relief. With their over sized ears and ruff-framed faces, they look like clowns. But there's nothing funny about an animal that can kill you with one swipe and Teddy and Bruno can. And it won't be long before Cherry Bomb is equally capable.

Howard and Monica love the bears. They rescued all three from roadside zoos and are turning the 12 acres they own into a Bruin Utopia. When the bears aren't in their roomy enclosures,
they romp free in an area surrounded by a stockade fence fortified by electric fencing that will all but knock you down if you hit it. They've put in a hill called Bear Mountain and a pond for the bears to swim in.

When we visited Saturday, Cherry Bomb was out in the play area, romping with the dogs. We watched from a safe area behind the wire, chatting with Howard and Monica as I snapped
pictures of the action with my zoom lens.

Even though Cherry Bomb is only the size of
Josie, the couple's German Shepherd, it's obvious from watching the dog's body language that she appreciates her playmate's superior strength. Howard and Monica appreciate it as well and work daily with the bears, teaching them to be gentle and respectful of their keepers.

But can they? As much as I admire our friends for rescuing the bears, there's something about people keeping apex predators in captivity that makes me nervous. I'm not saying it can't be done - there are people out there like Doug Seus whose knowledge of bear behavior and body language is so thorough that they can safely handle the animals. But I think people like that are rare, and that it takes much more than a good heart to take in an animal who tops us on the food chain.

Larry and I disagree on the issue. He thinks given the surplus of animals dumped on the exotics market by circuses and zoos, anyone with means should be able to take them in and provide for them. I think so, too, but believe it should be done under the supervision or guidance of an experienced expert. Just because you can afford to house a bear doesn't mean you have the smarts to keep it.

Yes, I'm familiar with the arguments. I know more people are killed by escaped dogs than by escaped bears. I know from working with horses how easily they can hurt you. But if my horse or dog exhibits dangerous behavior I can easily find an expert or a trainer to help me. It's not so easy to find someone to come over and help me tame my bear. On the other hand, after visiting Howard and Monica and seeing how they house the bears, I'd feel safer living next to them than I'd feel living next to someone who houses their underfed pit bulls in a ramshackle fence.

It's obvious that the bears are smart and interact well with our friends. All three bears have learned to do tricks, like sitting in chairs, walking upright, high-fiving and the "happy bear" dance. But the mock-attack trick makes me nervous. Howard says he's training Cherry Bomb to bite him with a soft mouth. But what if she gets carried away and hurts him?

And like all "children," Cherry Bomb doesn't like it if she doesn't get her way. Her latest prank is to
scale the outside of her enclosure, something her owners discourage because the little grizzly is much better at going up than she is at going down, and it's not like the local volunteer fire department will help get your grizzly down from the top of its cage.

Monica's strategy is to rush over and scold Cherry Bomb until she gets down, which she eventually does. Again, I wonder how long it is before the bear realizes that she doesn't have to listen to anyone. If she can learn tricks, surely she can figure that out.

I believe that Howard and Monica are working diligently to educate themselves and are striving to train the bears in a manner that will minimize the possibility of danger. If anyone is capable of being responsible bear-keepers, it's certainly these people. And from a personal standpoint it's gratifying to meet two folks so committed to education and the conservation of what may be a vanishing resource.

I hope that what I have observed - the appearance of a genuine human/bear kinship- will continue for the couple and their unusual pets, and that their efforts will evolve into the kind of advocacy work Howard and Monica seem born to.

But do I think just anyone should have the opportunity to do what Howard and Monica are doing? I'm not so sure. What do you think?


CJ said...

Wow. It's a tough call. They seem happier than a lot of bears I've seen in zoos. They look well fed, are playing instead of pacing and don't have a bunch of people gawking at them. On the other hand if one of those bears hurts their keepers, even unintentionally, one of your rural deputies is going to kill it first and ask questions later. Attacks in zoos are rare because there is less contact between the animals and the keeper and usually in the case of an attack the animal isn't killed because it's not considered a danger to the public.
I don't know what to say except "great photos" as usual.

Morgan said...

Not all zoos are created equal, that's for sure. And just because a bear is in a zoo - even a nice one - doesn't mean it's well-treated. Last October our family went to the N.C. Zoo in Asheville and were sad to see how neurotic the polar bears and black bears were, even though they had very nice enclosures. They seemed very ill at ease with the visitors and the only bear that seemed to be happy was the grizzly.

Our friends bears are still young and I don't know how they'll fare as long term captives. I do know that their owners are committed to treating them kindly and work to provide them with a lot of stimulation, a proper diet, exercise, etc. But as you say, CJ, all that won't matter if either of the owners gets hurt or - God forbid - one of the bears escapes.

I'm glad you liked the photos. I took over 200 while I was there and had a hard time deciding which ones to post today. :-)

Anonymous said...

What amazing pictures. It looks like your friends truly care about the bears and provide a good home. But like you I fear they are in the minority. I wonder how many people buy animals like this and then neglect them after the novelty wears off. Also, isn't illegal in most places to keep big cats and other dangerous animals? I sometimes see news reports where tigers or large snakes kept illegally are seized. How do your friends get around the law?
God Bless You,

Morgan said...


There's no doubt that people do buy large exotic animals on a whim and then neglect them, either through boredom or fear after realizing they've bitten off more than they can chew (pardon the pun.) Even worse are people who buy the animals for shock or "macho" value.

There was a terrible situation in our state a few years back involving a tiger sold by a guy who never should have owned it in the first place (a guy we knew) to a complete novice. The new owner was walking the tiger on a leash when it went after his three year old son, severely mauling him. Of course, the tiger was shot and killed and the incident led to an exotics ban in that county.

Most exotic regulations are decided on a county by county basis. Some counties allow exotics, others don't. Our neighbors moved to their house because there's no exotics ban (yet) in that county. But one bad incident could change all that.

thimscool said...

My gut says that they are asking for trouble.

I sort of think that this type of activity should be done in a larger setting, with more land, more people, and more money involved.

Wild animal rescue for smaller predators, like birds or reptiles is one thing, but in those cases there is hope to release the animals. In the case of a bear, they will need to be confined forever, and unless the space is *huge* then how are they different from glorified pets?

I don't know. The bears seem happy and healthy, but they are not wild. So it becomes an act of kindness to individual animals, not to a species. I just don't know about this.

Morgan said...

That's one thing that has always bothered me, Luke - if they're going to do this they clearly need more people.

If one were attacked, with only two of them there's no way the other person could save his/her partner. I think there needs to be several people there at all times. I haven't asked them if they have a gun or some other weapon in case the unthinkable occurs.

Your last point is a good one, too. The only way I can see what they are doing as a benefit to the species is through education. I know from the bird of prey programs I've done that people often don't care about an animal until they actually see it.

CJ said...

Thimscool, I'd say the bears are not in the wild but they are still wild, no matter how much their owners play with them.
After reading the comments here I'm inclined to say I'm probably uneasy with what they are doing, especially given that these two people don't have any help. That's something I hadn't considered but yeah, they do need some extra hands I'd think.
Is that a new avatar I see Morgan? That's a nice shot of you on the horse. Is he yours?

thimscool said...

Hey Morg, I poked you in the ribs over at Ayman's place.

Morgan said...

You got me, Luke. Although I'm a flaming moderate, actually, I did defend myself over at Ayman's. Of course, on the Imus issue I'm not all that liberal. I think Sharpton is a race-baiting, hypocritical punk ass bitch. I wonder when these Duke boys are exonerated if he's going to issue an apology for calling them racists. I kind of doubt it.

CJ, the horse - she's actually a cob - is mine. Her name is Guinevere and she's a Haflinger cross and a very good girl. I started her under saddle last year and she's done very well. She also does tricks!

CJ said...

What the heck is a cob? Is that a breed of horse?

Morgan said...

A cob is a small, stocky horse. Or large stocky pony if you prefer. I chose Guinevere because she was short, slightly drafty and strong and if I fell from her I wouldn't have far to go before I landed.
Haflinger is the breed. She is half-Halflinger which accounts for her stockiness and flaxen mane. I don't know what the other half is. I only know she was originally Amish-bred country and ended up in a bad home as a filly. She was later rescued by the lady I bought her from, who only offered her because she had to downsize her stable of horses. I got a real bargain when I bought her. I couldn't ask for a better horse.

thimscool said...

Wouldn't that make her a Quarterlinger?

Morgan said...

"Wouldn't that make her a Quarterlinger?"

Oooooh. I totally should have seen that coming. Ha! Thanks for the laugh. :-)

Anonymous said...

That was funny, Thimscool. I like the picture also, Morgan. You're lucky to have space for a horse.
God Bless You,

Pete said...

These people are personnal friends of mine and I was the one that raise the grizzly bear from a cub. These people know the risk and take every precaution to prevent these animals from getting out of their yard and take precautions for their safety. The main thing with any animal be it a dog, horse, cat, bear, or any other creature is to be the dominant animal. I am not talking about beating these animal, I am talking about acting the part of the dominant being. telling when a behavior is unexceptable and rewarding the behaviors that you want. These bears know that my friends are the boss and respond accordingly. The biggest thing about working with animals like bears is being able to read the animals mood and temperment. They know the times that it is better to stay out of the way of the bears because they are wrestling with each other. They know how to read these animals and know what they are going to do next just like you can tell that a dog is going to bite or a horse is going to kick. It is all relative and they are extremely good at being able to do this. On the topic of anyone owning these animals and the legality of it, these people have taken every step to make sure that these animals are legal to have in the county and are going as far as to get their USDA license to even further insure they legality. If anything, and howard and Monica agree, there should be a licensing where anyone that wants to have an exotic animal has to go through this process and be inspected for safety and the wellbeing of the animals in question. I work at a zoo out west and these bears are taken care of a lot better than any zoo can do because of the hands on that my friends do. You can get a better idea of an animals health, weight and can inspect for injuries a lot easier and treat them a lot easier when you can put your hands on an animal. At the zoo I work at, you have to put an animal under to be able to put your hands on them and that can be hazardous to the animal in itself. Not just anyone should own animals like these but my friends take every precaution and take excellent care of these animals. Yes these are still wild animals and anyone who works with them knows their potential but it is keeping the respect of the anima and respecting the animal that keeps them safe. They do not need anymore people out there then they have unless someone wants to come over with a shovel and a bucket to help clean the yard so they can spend even more time with these great animals. These people live for these animals and these animals live to be with my friends. No one should have any worries about them escaping or anyone getting hurt or killed. i have spent hundreds of hours with these animals swimming, training, wrestling, and just relaxing with them over some fruit. If anyone has any comments, I well welcome them but do not bad mouth something that you have no knowledge of. Ignorance is not bliss in this situation. When you live with an animal like my friends do you can read them and understand them.

Pete said...

By the way, his name is Baloo not Bruno. I love these animals as if they were my own and they see me as one of their dominant elders. These animals are well trained and are well-behaved. Not many people can be in direct contact with bears but Howard, Monica and myself are one of the few that have learned what we need to be able to do this safely. We are no where near the level of Doug Seus because he has been at it a lot longer and is a god in that respect but we are getting there.