After spending their lives in cramped, inhospitable enclosures, 11 bears have found freedom at their new home in Wise County.
Last month, the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary near Boyd took in six black bears, three grizzlies and two Asiatic black (or Moon) bears rescued from a roadside zoo in North Carolina. The bears, ranging in age from 2 to 26 years old, lived in concrete pits with little to no shelter from inclement weather.
Their plight has been documented for years by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and has included pleas for their removal by celebrities such as Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right.”
After the North Carolina exhibitor had his license suspended in January of this year, the bears needed a new home. IEAS has taken in bears for years, but bringing in 11 new inhabitants at one time would be a big undertaking.
Thanks to $440,000 from an anonymous donor in California, a new 8-acre habitat was built to accommodate the new arrivals. The IEAS team had 90 days to build the new enclosures, which included 2.5 miles of piping and 1.5 miles of fencing enclosing a habitat consisting of trees, brush, ponds, water tubs and their own man-made caves.
The work was completed in just 78 days, and the bears arrived June 9.
Animal behaviorist Louis Dorfman, who also serves as chairman of the board for the sanctuary, leads the efforts to care for the bears’ emotional and physical needs.
“They have everything wild bears need,” Dorfman said. “They have nothing to fear. They even have room service.”
At the roadside zoo, the bears were often forced to beg for food from tourists. Now, their diet consists of a variety of fruits such as melons, apples and oranges; vegetables like squash and broccoli; and specially formulated meat along with donated meat such as hot dogs, bacon, sandwich meat, shrimp, lobster and fish. The bears even sometimes get dessert such as donuts and cakes.
Right now they eat about 20 pounds of food per day, but they’ll double the amount in September and October as they put on enough fat to get them through the winter.
It’s no surprise the bears seemed to be enjoying their new home during a visit Tuesday. One bear, Rusty, continued to pace back and forth in his enclosure, despite the ability to explore his much-larger habitat.
“He’s taking about six steps, or 20 feet, and then turning around,” said IEAS Executive Director Richard Gilbreth. “That’s how big his pen was in North Carolina. With our enrichment program, he’ll get out of that routine.”
It’s a far cry from Rusty’s previous world where he walked back and forth all day inside a concrete pit, seeing no trees or grass.
“He’d look up and all he would see is sky,” Gilbreth said.
The bears are enjoying not only their new home, but their new human friends as well. Dorfman said the bears haven’t had physical contact with humans before, so they had a “neutral disposition” toward humans. It didn’t take long, though, for that to change.
“When they got here, within a few hours, they would come over and want to touch their caregivers,” Dorfman said. ” … My job is to get them to understand we’re here to care for them. They’re not predators. They crave a relationship with us.”
With 28 bears calling IEAS home, the sanctuary is now home to the largest collection of bears in Texas. In addition, the sanctuary also currently houses 46 felines and two coatis.
The sanctuary relies on donations to care for the animals. It costs nearly $125 a month to adopt a bear to ensure he or she has adequate food, a healthy living environment and medical care. For more information on how to adopt an animal at the sanctuary or make a donation, visit www.bigcat.org.