In the wild, bears are capable of instilling fear and wonder in any human who happens across their path. We are warned against leaving food scraps or wrappers out when camping to avoid confrontation with bears, and for good reason. Bears are predators and if you come in between them and their food–or babies–the odds of you making it out unscathed are none to high.
In captivity, however, these same bears are reduced to side-shows, stripped of their natural dominance and reduced to large ploys to sell t-shirts. This was the sad life for 17 bears recently rescued from “Black Forest Bear Park,” a small tourist attraction located in the middle of a strip mall in Helen, Georgia.
Bears in a strip mall…sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.
17 Bears in a Strip Mall
To contain these 17 full-size Syrian black bear, brown bear mixes, their owner was holding the bears in a series of concrete pits. Pat Craig, executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, tells OGP, “The owner of the business built the facility specifically to house the bears in 8 concrete pits and have a gift shop and baby bear nursery for people to see the cubs that were born there each year.”
Craig continues, “The owner purchased the bears from different places around the U.S., but also bred the females every year so he would have baby bears to display. He would sell the babies once they were too large for the nursery.”
Surviving only on slices of white bread and the occasional apple slice (sold in the gift shop) thrown in by a tourist, the bears were all stunted in size as the result of poor nutrition. Not only this, but they were never given proper veterinary care, one of the bears had two broken legs that went untreated.
Thankfully, The Wild Animal Sanctuary stepped in to rescue the bears from the “Black Forest Bear Park.”
Transporting the entire troop of bears from concrete pits to a large acreage habitat on the sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, the lives of the bears would be forever changed.
Craig tells OGP that the experience of living in confinement had taken a toll on the mental condition of the bears, “They were all mentally suffering from depravation and confinement in a harsh environment. All of the bears displayed stereotypic behaviors that demonstrated they were suffering.”
Stereotypic behavior has been noted in animals being held in captivity, and is sometimes referred to as “zoochosis.” It is believed that wild animals in confinement will take on repetitive, obsessive behaviors such as rocking back and forth, pulling of their own hair, pacing, or even refusing to eat and regurgitating everything they do eat. The incredible stress that results from being deprived of the ability to express their natural behavior causes animals in captivity adopt such behaviors as a coping mechanism…can you blame them?
Now that the bears have the freedom and space to act as bear would in the wild, the healing process has finally begin.
A Happy Surprise
It was soon discovered that two of the female bears were pregnant upon arrival at the sanctuary, luckily these little cubs will never have to know the mental suffering their parents had to endure.
Craig explains to OGP, “Both mothers delivered their cubs in their underground dens during winter hibernation and did an outstanding job of caring for them.”
When springtime arrived, the two mothers and their six little cubs emerged from their dens, ready to show off their cubs. Craig says,” [the mothers and cubs] were allowed to stay in their enclosures until this month, so the cubs had time to develop and get big enough to move to the habitat. We have since moved them to the habitat, where they now get to roam freely with each other and the older cubs that had been born to those mothers in previous years [while in captivity].”
While living in captivity, all the bears were separated into designated pits, at the sanctuary they are finally able to be reunited. It’s incredible how something as basic as space and proper nutrition can improve the mannerisms and personality of these amazing animals.
Craig tells OGP, that the bears, “All of the bears have changed tremendously – as all rescued animals do – since they now have an amazing variety of wholesome foods to eat, lots of space to run and play, and lots of friends to play with (rather than surviving in barren concrete pits and being separated from one another).”
The bears fill their days at the sanctuary, “with eating, playing, napping, playing some more – and of course eating again, and again, and again. They love to wrestle and play with each other, and like to attack and play with the large sunflowers we planted all over their habitats.”
Can you imagine a groups of massive bears stopping to smell the sunflowers? Pretty outstanding. The bears are thriving at the sanctuary, which is crucial because these bears will never be able to be released back into the wild. Having been raised in a captive environment, these bears will always view humans as their primary food supplier and if they were to be released they would seek out humans and most likely end up being put down because they’re perceived as a threat.
Craig also explains that the bears, ” are not pure genetic grizzly bears, as their owner cross-bred Syrian brown bear, black bear and other genetics into the group by not caring which bears bred with each other. They are “mutts” basically, and would never be used to release back into wild populations.”
As far as these bears are concerned, the Wild Animal Sanctuary is the best place for them to live out their days within a habitat that is as natural as possible.
The heart of the matter with these bears is the fact that they could have lived happily in the wild if tourist businesses, such as “Black Forest Bear Park,” did not existed. Pulling these wild animals out of their natural environment to rot away in a concrete pit as a tourist attraction is not only legal, it occurs more often than most people even realize.
Craig tells OGP, “The sad thing was thousands of tourists went to this place – and many other places like it within the U.S. – and nobody did anything to stop it. Most people thought it was neat to see the bears and didn’t care they were stuck in concrete pits within a strip mall.”
Most people see these attractions as an exciting opportunity to interact with wild animals, which is not an entirely cruel intention–but the inability to recognize the greater harm that is being done to these creatures for that purpose is more than an individual fault, it’s a fault in our society.
“It’s sad to think we as humans don’t realize how distorted that reality was, and that they should have never attended the attraction in the first place,” Craig says, “Abusive businesses like these flourish because humans just want to be entertained, and yet, once they are asked about the conditions there – most would say it wasn’t a good place for the bears.”
There are humane ways to see wild animals, for example visiting a credible sanctuary such as the Wild Animal Sanctuary, but as with any other excursion that involves wild animals it is important to consider the important questions.
Craig tells OGP, “People need to think before the act and ask important questions up front – why are these bears in these pits, and not in a natural setting…. And why are they captive and not in the wild… and why would they breed them without having a need for babies… etc….”
By keeping these questions in consideration when visiting an establishment that features wild animals you can ensure that your patronage isn’t funding animal cruelty. While it is unlikely that the appeal of captive wildlife attractions will die off in our lifetime, it is important to remember that there are alternatives. For more, check out this article on How YOU Can Help Create Better Regulations for Bears in Captivity.