By JUSTINE McGUIRE
Capital News Service
LANSING – Oswald Bear Ranch in Newberry has allowed the public to interact with bear cubs for 15 years, but Michigan law and animal rights activists would end the practice unless a bill passes to make the activity legal.
Oswald’s has violated a 2000 state “large carnivore” law for more than a decade, but was unaware of the situation until last summer, said Carl Oswald, who works at the ranch and is owner’s son.
It immediately ended public interaction with its bear cubs last June.
“After that, the cubs would look at people, wondering what they had done wrong and why no one would come in and pet them,” Oswald said.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, took up the issue and got a bill passed in December to allow petting of bear cubs up to 36 weeks old or 90 pounds.
However, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed the measure.
Casperson and co-sponsor Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, reintroduced the bill this year and it passed in the Senate on Feb. 14. It will head to the House next.
Current law allows petting of cubs up to 20 weeks old, but the Bear Ranch has black bears, which are born in spring and reach 20 weeks early in the summer tourism season.
Bears are included in the law although they’re actually omnivores, meaning they eat fruit, vegetation and meat, Oswald said. Visitors feed them apples and Fruit Loops.
It’s illegal to breed the bears in the state, but Oswald’s takes in orphaned cubs. The facility is home to 29 bears that live in four enclosed habitats.
Oswald said the smallest habitat is for the yearlings and is the size of half a football field. Older females get a football-field-sized enclosure to roam in. Young females have a half mile, and so do the males. The males’ habitat also has ponds and a waterfall.
Some groups oppose the legislation, including the Michigan Humane Society, Detroit Zoological Society and Potter Park Zoo.
Opponents say they’re concerned about cub welfare, attacks, communicable diseases and the possibility of less responsible operations.
Kevin Hatman, public relations coordinator at the Michigan Humane Society in Bingham Farms, said, “These are the sorts of bills that have a lot of unintended consequences. It’s exposing the public to significant risk.”
But Oswald said, “It’s something you have to see and experience for yourself.”
The ranch hasn’t had any problems with bites or scratches from cubs during public interaction, he said.
Although Oswald said that he constantly has bandaged hands in the summer when the cubs are very young and don’t know how to control themselves, he noted that their behavior improves as they get older.
Oswald said that he and his father have contact with the bears, including the fully-grown ones, every day and rub noses with them, ride on their backs and trained some of them to sit in chairs.
The cubs are raised with human contact and the youngest one’s live in the owner’s house. “We raise them like our dogs,” Oswald said. “They’re a little more hard-headed though.”
He said cub petting is the big draw and he doesn’t expect that the ranch could survive without it.
Oswald’s is one of two bear cub petting zoos in the U.S. and, Oswald said, gets visitors from every continent. The other is in Idaho.
“I love it,” said Trent Vruggink, a Michigan Bear Hunters Association board member from Newberry. He takes his family to the ranch whenever they visit.
And association Vice President Tim Dusterwinkle of Big Rapids called it “great fun for kids.”
He added, “If people want to do it and understand the risk, I don’t see the problem with it.”
The association doesn’t have an official position on the legislation.
Oswald discounted the fear of disease, saying there’s never been a documented case of rabies in black bears. He gets “nipped and scratched daily” but has never had a problem.
But Justin Schlanser, a veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo, said that bears as young as 5 months can carry rabies and the disease can be transmitted by bite or scratch. There is no rabies vaccine for bears.
However, he said that there haven’t been any reported cases of bear rabies in Michigan, adding that infected bears are usually reclusive.
But he expressed concerned that parasites carried in bear intestines could be transmitted to humans through fecal matter.
Scott Carter of the Detroit Zoological Society said he worries about cubs’ welfare after being taken away from their mothers.
However, Oswald’s takes only cubs that have already lost their mothers.