Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Friday

February 15, 2013

Senate: People-bear interaction acceptable

LANSING (AP) — An Upper Peninsula bear ranch could legally let visitors touch and pose for photos with bear cubs under legislation approved Thursday by the Michigan Senate, as lawmakers disagreed over the wisdom of having dangerous animals at roadside attractions.

The bill headed to the House also would free up other facilities to allow public contact with bears under 9 months old or weighing no more than 90 pounds, though the sponsor is unsure if similar places exist in Michigan.

Oswald's Bear Ranch, which claims to be the largest bear ranch in the U.S. with 29 roaming black bears, is near Newberry — about 20 minutes south of popular U.P. tourism spot Tahquamenon Falls.

Owner Dean Oswald allowed visitors to have close contact with his bears for 15 years. They could even pose for photos with them until he was notified last year that it was illegal.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in late December vetoed bills that would have let the public handle bear cubs because he opposed other changes to the Large Carnivore Act. He encouraged lawmakers, however, to send him the bear-cub provisions again.

The bill passed the Republican-led Senate on a 26-9 party-line vote, with Democrats opposed.

"If you've ever gone to (Oswald's) facility, there's a lot of money involved. He didn't just put up fences and say, 'Oh, I'm going to have bears,'" said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who is sponsoring the bill. "It's been successful. People love it. It's been a big draw for the Newberry area. It's part of their engine for the economy over there." He said critics of the measure want to make sure no other facilities except Oswald's can allow the public close access to bears, but he opposes such a grandfather provision.

Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, said Michigan's 2000 law regulating the ownership of lions, big cats and bears was prompted by the mauling of a young girl.

"These are animals that do have the potential to be very dangerous," she said, echoing concerns posed by the Humane Society of the United States. "We should think carefully about making changes like this." She also expressed concern that smaller operators cannot treat animals as well as zoos do.

The Republican-led House is expected to consider the bear-cub bill before warmer weather arrives in the spring. Other changes opposed by Snyder — including expanding permission to keep large carnivores to breeders — could be proposed again this legislative session, Casperson said.

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