Legislators favor bear petting, despite zookeepers’ warnings

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

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Donald Wasserman
Mon, 03/11/2013 - 10:36am
These are wild animals, and need to be treated as such. Treating wild animals as pets are bad for humans and animals.
David W.
Tue, 03/12/2013 - 9:16am
Conventional wisdom falls on deaf ears in the current Republican dominated legislature in Michigan. Leadership for the greater good falls by the wayside when the profits for business and industry come into question by our state's legislature. Absolute power corrupts absolutely!
Tue, 03/12/2013 - 9:16am
About 20 yrs. ago we had a deer enclosure on Presque Isle in Marquette that the city abandoned after state law required a double fence to keep people from petting the deer. City Fathers deemed it too expensive to build the second fence so the gates were opened allowing 35 some deer to be released on the Isle which created it's own set of problems. Ultimately, deer overpopulated the Isle, decimating the edible ground cover and requiring the city to hire WI sharpshooters to kill as many deer as they could at a significant cost. I relate this story to point out what happens when ignorant humans mess with wild animals, which is what the Repuglican controlled Legislature is doing. The Bill allows people to pet and hold bears up to 90 lbs., and we all know what an unruely 90 lb. child can do. What do you think a "tame" 90 lb. bear with claws could do to your face and body. We know what a "tame" chimp did to an unfortunate woman. Casperson is an idiot to pursue such legislation favoring a singular business. I hope he ends up being a defendant if an injury lawsuit results from such misguided legislation.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 03/12/2013 - 11:01am
Hopefully the bill includes full liability and responsibility accruing to the legislators that support this legislation, clearly exempting them from any immunity.
Tue, 03/12/2013 - 11:34am
What the world?!! Is the bill's sponsor on the payroll of the Oswald Bear Ranch? This is the stupidest bill yet, except for the on that legislates a woman's vagina. I fully agree and support Chuck, Paul and Donald. Hopefully there is at least one republican with some sense about this and will not support or sign this bill. I do not have much hope but must keep hope alive!
Carol Waltman
Wed, 03/13/2013 - 3:42pm
Carol Waltman The writer tilted the table. The large zoos appear to be the good guys, and the peoples' representatives are the bad guys. Hmmm... All of Dean's bears are orphaned. He and his family bottle feed them around the clock and handle them gently, saving them and starting them on the way to a healthy life. The big zoos have it all wrong. It's inhumane to lock animals in barred cages with concrete underfoot. The Oswalds' Bear Ranch is a wonderful, natural environment with plenty of space and good nutrition. The cubs help pay for all of this, at no harm to anyone. We have been neighbors for years, and there has never been an incident in which the bears or the visitors have been harmed. I'm ashamed of the people who commented without any first hand knowledge. Tom Casperson worked on this bill. He's a man of and for his constituents. We are blessed to have him as our state senator, and we thank the others who supported it. I'll bet they won't get any money from the zoo lobbies, but they do and will have the support of their constituents.