Meet the man behind the bear cub bill

Mar 7, 2013

The Michigan House approved a bill Thursday to allow tourists to come in close contact with bear cubs.

The bill only really affects one bear sanctuary in the Upper Peninsula.

Meet Don Oswald of the Oswald Bear Ranch.

“I have 31 bears here right now. They’re my babies,” Oswald said.

You can find YouTube videos of Oswald bottle feeding his “babies,” usually given to him after their mother bears are killed in logging or cars accidents.

He says he’s gotten about a dozen bears from state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan; from Ohio, Minnesota, New York and South Dakota. Some come from breeders who can’t sell the bears, Oswald said.

“If I don’t have them they’re going to be euthanized,” Oswald explained.

The ranch offered tourists a chance to take photos with cubs to help raise money. Someone complained, so the bear sanctuary stopped the practice last summer when the owners were informed it was against state law.

If signed into law, the sanctuary could resume the practice with cubs younger than 36 weeks and that weigh less than 90 pounds.

The Michigan Humane Society and a number of zoos oppose the measure.

Tara Harrison, a veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo says people can be seriously injured by a bear cub’s bite while handling the animal.  She says bear cubs can also pass on diseases, like rabies.

“A 90 pound bear is a substantial size bear.   That would be…larger than most Labrador Retrievers and it’s a wild animal,” Harrison said in February.   

Oswald says he’s only seen a few minor scratches in the 16 years he’s been in business.

“The people who are against this have fabricated a lot of lies against us and it’s too bad really. I mean we’re trying to make a living up here, we’re a tourist area and I just feel really bad about the whole thing,” Oswald said.

Oswald charges $20 a car for visitors to the ranch. They can pay another $5 for a photo. The money helps support the sanctuary.

He says he got his first bear in 1984. The business began in 1997.

"It puts a lot of smiles on a lot of faces," Oswald said.

Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a similar bill in December over concerns about changes to safety and breeding provisions in the Large Carnivore Act. But in a letter explaining the veto, Snyder urged lawmakers to reintroduce the bill specifically related to bear facilities.

“He said to bring my bill back to be able to touch cub bears and he would sign it. And I’m sure he’s going to sign it now because the governor is a man of his word,” Oswald said.