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?