Despite resistance from the state’s traditional zookeepers, a bill written to keep visitors to an Upper Peninsula tourist attraction petting its bears appears bound for the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 48, written specifically for Oswald’s Bear Ranch near Newberry, passed the House last week on a 56-52 vote. It heads back to the Senate, where it has been approved once.
It was the second try for legislation to protect the facility. Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, has been working with owner Dean Oswald, who had until 2011 allowed visitors to touch and have their photos taken with bear cubs. That summer, Oswald wrote in a letter on his website, he was informed such activity was against state law.
An attempt in last year’s lame-duck legislative session to relax the state’s Large Carnivore Act, easing restrictions on private ownership of large carnivores, had that bill tie-barred to another bear-petting bill, and both were vetoed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
“I am concerned that other parts of the bills contradict the primary goal of the Large Carnivore Act to protect public health, public safety and animal welfare,” Snyder wrote in his veto message, before advising the legislators to resubmit the bear bill separately.
Officials at the state’s zoos had objected to those bills, as well as SB 48. Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, spoke against the bill last week, saying, “Allowing the handling of small bears has the potential to result in serious health and safety issues for Michigan's residents. It is extremely stressful for bear cubs to be prematurely removed from their mothers -- a common practice to facilitate public handling. This stress can cause them to lash out at whoever is being photographed with them, which is why this practice is currently illegal.”
The bill’s supporters said the Oswald Bear Ranch rescues cubs that are separated from their mothers through death or other circumstance. Visitors may come in contact with cubs up to nine months old or weighing less than 90 pounds.
Diane Thompson, president of Battle Creek’s Binder Park Zoo, told the Battle Creek Enquirer she objected to the bill for safety reasons, and added, “The law can’t be made for one person. If the law is intended to shine on Oswald’s or one business, there’s going to be unintended consequences because it wasn’t looked at as a whole.” Those could include other facilities opening to allow similar activity.
Accidents and deaths caused by animals have occurred at both public and private zoos, the most notorious being the deliberate release of lions, tigers, bears, wolves and monkeys from a private facility near Zanesville, Ohio, in 2011. Police ended up killing most of them.
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel