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Animal activists put spotlight on Yellowstone Bear World

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Bears live in close proximity to each other, with more than 70 bears sharing 125 acres.

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THORNTON — Alex Baldwin, of Idaho Falls, remembers when he first saw Yellowstone Bear World as a young boy.

He was amazed to see the large predators up close, closer than one could see the animals at any zoo or Yellowstone National Park.

It wasn’t until he was an adult and returned that it occurred to him something may be wrong with the animal park. He noticed animals pacing in irritation, a few limping. The bears seemed aggravated, unable to climb the surrounding trees because the trees’ bases had been wrapped in metal. (Such behaviors have been described by researchers as “zoochosis,” a “mental illness in animals” caused by “confinement stress.”)

And the feeding of bear cubs by the public, Bear World’s star attraction, seemed, to Baldwin, less like a cool chance to interact with animals and more like an exploitative profit-driven practice that was harmful to the bears.

“It was 100 percent different from how I had imagined it as a child,” Baldwin said.

The scene didn’t sit right with him. He wanted to do something about it. Since then he has joined several other animal rights activists in criticizing how the business is run.

Bear World is not a sanctuary or a zoo. It’s a for-profit animal exhibit.

According to Baldwin, other animal rights groups and several former Bear World employees, who spoke to the Post Register on the condition of anonymity, Bear World presents itself as a wildlife shelter that provides a safe place for bears to live, but in reality prioritizes profits at the cost of the physical and mental well-being of the animals.

Though Bear World operates by showing animals to the public, it does not have accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, instead operating under a certification of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has lower standards for animal care. The facility also has a USDA Class C (exhibitor) license, which allows it to breed animals, exhibit, buy and sell them.

During a September trip through the drive-thru facility with Baldwin, he pointed out several factors that concerned him.

Algae filled the ponds, which former employees have said are the main source of water for the animals.

Baldwin pointed out an elk that was limping, bears that were pacing, and birds that were eating the bears’ food.

There was no barrier between the animals and the public touring the facility, except for the tourists’ car doors. Customers are told to keep their vehicles moving at all times, but in some instances that was impossible as animals walked into the middle of the pathway.

Efforts to reach Yellowstone Bear World officials by phone and through social media for comment were unsuccessful.

Premature separation of bear cubs

In the wild, bear cubs typically stay with their mothers for the first two years of their lives. It’s when the cubs to learn how to survive on their own.

According to one former employee, however, cubs born at Bear World are taken from their mothers at just one or two months old. They said animal keepers care for the animals in a shared house on the park’s property, taking turns bottle-feeding them around the clock.

The idea, according to the animal keeper, was to acclimate the cubs early to being handled by humans. Two former employees said that once the cubs were separated from their mothers, they were never reintroduced to the sows.

Each year, as early as March, Bear World cubs are taken to interviews with local media, to a sporting goods store in Ammon and to an interactive museum in Utah for customers to interact with.

The publicity and public interactions help Bear World maintain its place as one of the area’s top tourists draws.

Bear World claimed in a Facebook comment in 2017 that separating the bears from their mothers was necessary for the cubs, the staff and the mothers.

“The cubs are with their mothers until they are two months old, then they are cared for by our keeper staff,” the comment said. “We do this for the safety of the cubs, safety of our staff, as well as the safety and overall quality of life of their mother.”

Naturalist and National Geographic television host Casey Anderson, wrote in his 2010 book, “The Story of Brutus: My Life With Brutus the Bear and the Grizzlies of North America,” that in early spring, male bears will sometimes kill cubs to mate with the female. Anderson is a former Yellowstone Bear World employee and Brutus is the grizzly bear he adopted from the facility, which he described as overcrowded, to save him from being euthanized.

Jay Pratte, director of animal care, conservation and education at New York’s Utica Zoo and president of Bear Care Group, which trains zoos internationally on how to care for and manage bears, said premature separation of cubs from their mothers is one of the most harmful and exploitative practices of roadside animal exhibits.

“Kids can only learn certain things at certain times as they age,” Pratte said. “With bears it’s no different.”

Pratte said the separation causes permanent distress to both the cub and their mothers, affecting their behavior for the rest of their lives. He said that at accredited zoos, cubs may be separated for medical emergencies, but that the goal is to return them to their mothers as soon as possible.

When bears are raised by humans, separate from their mothers, Pratte said the experience puts the bears “at war in their own head.”

“Hand raising an animal doesn’t make it domesticated,” Pratte said.

Lisa Wathne, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization opposes premature separation, as well as the public feeding of wild animals.

Members of the public feed bear cubs at Yellowstone Bear World. Jay Pratte, director of animal care, conservation and education at Utica Zoo, …

“The public contact with these baby animals is concerning and something we would like to see stop,” Wathne said.

During the Post Register’s trip through Bear World, animal handlers brought the cubs out to be bottle-fed by the public. For an extra $55, anyone age 5 or older can feed a bear cub and pet it.

“What you’re about to see is 100 percent illegal” Baldwin said as the cubs were brought out.

Baldwin cited the Animal Welfare Inspection Guide produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in making his claim. The guide was last revised in January, and sets guidelines for personnel examining USDA licensed facilities.

“At approximately 12 – 16 weeks of age dangerous animals, such as, tigers, lions, bears, and wolves … become too big, too fast and too strong to be used for public contact,” the guide states. “If you encounter a licensee allowing public contact with a dangerous animal over 12 weeks of age, contact your (supervisory animal care specialist).”

Several former Bear World employees all said the bears are born after hibernation, typically in March at the latest. That would mean the bears fed by the public in September were at least six months older, above the 12-16 week maximum set in the inspection guide.

Pratte estimated the cubs were 8 months old based on photos taken by the Post Register of the cub feeding.

One former employee who was in charge of managing and caring for the bears when they worked at Bear World said the animals were old enough and strong enough to cause serious injury with their teeth or claws.

While there have been documented incidents of Bear World bears injuring park employees, the park is not required to file reports on such instances that happen on their property. Over the years the facility has received several citations for violations including underfeeding animals, failing to provide adequate veterinary care including proper vaccinations, and failing to maintain a primary enclosure in good repair, according to a factsheet compiled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In 2016, a wolf escaped from the facility by digging under a perimeter fence gate and was euthanized after it was located about 2 miles away from the park.

{strong style=”font-size: 1em;”}Employees at risk{/strong}All three former employees, who spoke to the Post Register on the condition of anonymity, said they lived in housing set up at or near Bear World. They said both interns and full-time employees worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. They were not paid hourly, with interns only receiving a stipend of $500 every two weeks.

Most employees workers are in their 20s, according to two of the former employees, and start work there believing it’s a way to help animals.

One former animal keeper said that at night they were expected to get grizzly bears into cages so they would not attempt to dig out of the facility. They said they were not trained on how to do so, and that it was especially challenging when the animal manager was on vacation.

In his book, Anderson told the story of one of the park’s grizzlies escaping by digging its way out from under the facilities fence and making it to the highway. Anderson and a female co-worker used a trail of marshmallows, Hansel and Gretel style, to lure the sow back into the park and toward her enclosure. Once inside the park’s gates, the bear attacked the woman with “a barrage of brutal strikes and bites” leaving the woman’s arm looking like “hamburger meat.”

Anderson said he drove to woman out of the park to one of the park owners so that she could be taken to the hospital and returned with three tranquilizer darts to subdue the bear.

“... (The sow) was the only breeding female grizzly bear they had,” Anderson wrote. “Grizzly bear cubs were a vital asset in order to attract visitors to the park, so despite her disposition and rap sheet, they decided to let her stay.”

Gregg Losinski, a bear expert who was the regional conservation educator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said the department was never told of the incident of the bear escaping, and that he only learned about it from Anderson’s book.

“We were not kept in the loop regarding their bears,” Losinski said. “Clearly there were things happening there that we were not aware of.”

Pratte, who has worked with bears for decades, said he always keeps a barrier between himself and the animals he works with, and trains other zoos to do the same. In contrast, the former Bear World workers said they would go into the facility with the bears, equipped with a can of bear spray and a stick, with no training on how to use either.

“Sending in 20-somethings with a stick and a can of bear spray is utterly insane,” Pratte said when told of the reported practice at Bear World.

One former employee said an older male bear once attacked a younger female bear with the employee standing next to them.

“You can tell when one of them is in a bad mood,” the employee said. “They have a certain stomp to them.”

Fights between bears were reportedly common, and the former employees described three incidents in which older bears killed younger ones.

Pratte said it’s important for bears to be able to get away from each other when sharing an enclosure. In the recent tour of Bear World, however, the animals were seen in close proximity to each other, with around 70 bears sharing 125 acres.

“Black bears are not meant to be smashed together into that small a space,” one of the former employees said.

Two former employees both described incidents in which workers misused the bear spray, hitting either themselves or another worker with the spray.

All three former employees said they were embarrassed or ashamed to have worked for Bear World after looking back at how it managed the animals.

One employee, however, said they stayed for years because they were concerned for what would happen to the bears if they left. They said they were still afraid of what would happen to the animals if Bear World were to come under USDA investigation.

“That’s why a lot of people don’t talk,” they said. “It’s not a happy place, but they know how to show you a good time.”

{strong style=”font-size: 1em;”}The company you keep{/strong}The trade and exhibition of wild animals has come under increased scrutiny in recent years thanks to documentaries such as “Blackfish” and “Tiger King.”

Despite its repeated claims that all its bear cubs stay at Yellowstone Bear World, records show it has sent bear cubs to various facilities with controversial histories, including one featured in the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King.”

Wathne noted that only some of the cubs stay at Bear World for public feeding and to be introduced into the park. In a 2017 Facebook comment, Yellowstone Bear World claimed all cubs stay at the facility.

“The cubs here were born in, and will remain in, our park for the duration of their lives,” the comment stated.

Transfer records with various states, however, show at least 96 bears have been sold to other facilities since 2009. Selling the bears is a way to keep the park’s bear population in check.

In an interview with the Grizzly Times Podcast, Anderson said “People who come to wildlife parks want to see little baby bears or big adult bears, but they don’t want to see awkward teenage bears.”

At the time Anderson adopted Brutus he said that because the park had reached saturation in its bear population “they had a policy, which is legal to this day with captive animals, that they would euthanize the cubs at the end of the year to keep the population the same.”

Anderson said it was at that point he knew he “didn’t want to be part of that world anymore.”

Inspired by Brutus, he founded Montana Grizzly Encounter, a grizzly bear rescue and education sanctuary, near Bozeman in 2004. Brutus died there earlier this year at the age of 19.

One of the former employees who interned at Bear World said employees were only told the bears were sent to partnered facilities, and that employees often wondered what became of the animals they helped raise.

Bear World President Courtney Ferguson told the Deseret News the facility only trades animals with USDA-certified institutions and the primary purpose is to keep genetics diverse and prevent inbreeding. “It’s standard practice in the industry,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with it.”

Among those facilities that received bears from Bear World were Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, formerly owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, more commonly known as “Joe Exotic,” which received four black bear cubs in April 2013. He was convicted in 2019 on 17 counts of animal abuse and two counts of attempted murder. Another was Bear Country USA in South Dakota, which received two black bear cubs aged at two-and-a-half months. In 2006, two members of the family that owns Bear Country were convicted in federal court for illegally selling bear gallbladders to a business that sold ”specialty gourmet products.”

The vast majority of bears, 84 in total were transported to Woody’s Menagerie, in Mulberry Grove, Illinois, owned by Gregg Woody. According to Wathne, Woody was investigated by the USDA in 2016 for poor veterinary care for animals, providing inadequate space for bears and big cats, and failure to provide proper shelter for the animals during the winter. The Humane Society of the United States claims Woody “has collected lions and bears and then sent these animals to slaughter.”

Idaho Department of Agriculture records show Bear World shipped more than 30 bears to Woody between 2017 and 2021.

Wathne criticized Yellowstone Bear World’s choice of business partners, saying it showed the company saw the animals primarily as products.

“If they truly cared about bears, they would not be producing them to send to other facilities,” Wathne said.