Despite opposition from animal rights activists, veterinary experts and concerned citizens, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved a bill this week to allow bear cubs to interact with people in petting zoo-like settings.
According to CBS Detroit, Snyder signed legislation Tuesday amending Michigan's Large Carnivore Act. Dubbed the "bear cub petting zoo bill," the new measure will allow the public to interact with bears up to 90 pounds and 36 weeks old -- this will include holding and feeding the cubs, as well as taking photographs with them.
Previously, the Large Carnivore Act had prohibited direct human contact with large carnivores, including bears.
Earlier this month, lawmakers limited the bear cub bill, over concerns that the new law would lead to a sudden increase in bear petting zoos around the state, according to an earlier Michigan Radio report. The measure now applies only to businesses "already offering bear petting."
According to the Michigan Humane Society, there were "only a few bear petting establishments" that were active in the state in 2012.
The most prominent of Michigan's bear petting facilities is Oswald's Bear Ranch, a Newberry, Mich., establishment that has been owned and operated by a former firefighter named Dean Oswald since 1984. The doors of the ranch were open to the public in 1997 and until last year, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials -- citing the Large Carnivore Act -- prohibited Oswald from allowing bear petting at the ranch, visitors had been allowed to interact and take photos with the facility's black bear cubs.
“They could take five, 10, 15, 20 shots for $5 and have the opportunity to touch a black bear,” Oswald told MLive.com last month. “Millions of people can’t say they’ve touched a black bear. It’s quite a thing.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials had reportedly come calling at Oswald's ranch after a visitor complained that handlers were feeding the cubs Froot Loops cereal.
"Oswald's Bear Ranch is an important piece of the Upper Peninsula culture," Snyder said in a statement Tuesday. "The Oswalds play an important role in raising rescued cubs to adulthood, as well as providing the public with education about black bears."
Critics of the bill insist that close interaction between people and cubs is neither safe for humans nor for the bears involved.
In February, the Associated Press reported that some Michigan zoo officials have been vocally opposed to the bill, with Michigan's Association of Zoos & Aquariums stressing that "scratches and bites from the 'unpredictable' animals can cause injury, disease or death."
Bears, "at whatever age and size, are dangerous," said Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director and CEO Ron Kagan.
Animal rights activists also say that the practice can cause the animals harm, and may encourage exploitative human behavior as well.
"The practice of handling and using bear cubs for photo opportunities and interactions with the public seriously compromises animal welfare and threatens public safety," wrote the Humane Society in a November 2012 report about the debate over the Large Carnivore Act. "It is stressful for bear cubs to be prematurely removed from the nurturing care of their mothers -- a common practice to facilitate public handling. During photo and play sessions with the public, the cubs may also be exposed to abusive and excessive handling."
Still, despite the criticism, advocates of the bill say that the new bear petting allowance will not bring harm to either animals or humans.
“A bear is no different than taking in a young dog,” Oswald, who says no bear has ever bitten a visitor on his ranch, told MLive.com last month. “Be with it every day, treat it right, and you’ll have the same outcome. A zoo will tell you different, but they’re full of [expletive].”
Oswald added that allowing bear cub petting would be good for "tourism" in the area.
This YouTube video, uploaded in 2010, is said to show visitors playing with bear cubs at Oswald's Bear Ranch:
Go to the Michigan Humane Society's website to learn more about bear petting establishments in Michigan.
Clarification: Though Dean Oswald started his bear ranch in 1984, the facility was not open to the public until 1997. Language in this post has been amended to make this distinction clearer