Among the droves of non-natives relocating to Colorado for our beautiful, expansive outdoors are thirteen brown and black bears rescued from deplorable conditions in Ohio.
The bears, which include several cubs, were relocated to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg in late May, several years after Ohio passed a law that bans owning "dangerous wild animals," including lions, tigers, bears and alligators. The law came after an owner of exotic animals set dozens free in Zanesville, Ohio, before fatally shooting himself, according to a report from ABC news.
Before the law, Ohio was a notorious unregulated breeding ground for the selling of such animals, says Pat Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary. In the past four years, the sanctuary has worked closely with the state, taking in seventy animals, mostly lions and tigers; the federal government; and animals-rights group, including PETA, which helped transfer the bears to Colorado.
Life in the Midwest had been tough for the bears. When they came to the sanctuary, several were missing teeth and had stomach parasites and weight issues. Some had even been declawed.
Initially they were kept in small enclosures, but on the sanctuary's property and in close proximity to each other, as many had grown up together. The point was to make them feel safe — many hadn't lived in more than several feet of concreted space — but slowly acclimate them to the sights and smells of the refuge, the largest in the world for carnivores.
"We go through a rehabilitation stage, which consists of bringing them here and bringing them in a similar-sized enclosure from what they came from so they don't feel like they're in a much bigger space and scared that they can't defend that space," Craig says.
Once they got their bearings and realized they were safe, they were allowed to roam in and out of their enclosures and explore their new territory. "They take small trips out of their enclosures," Craig says. "They go out and walk around a bit and come back. This reassures them that they have a safe harbor to come back to. They go a little farther the next time...and find a den out in the habitat, or a pond."
He says rehabilitating bears can take several days or months depending on the bear's personality, and it wasn't until recently that the thirteen bears felt safe enough to venture out of their enclosures, or, in some cases, abandon them completely.
"They realize that they have plenty of food, great expanses and lots of fresh air and green grass and all the good things that they haven't had because they've spent their whole lives on concrete or gravel," Craig says.
Colorado's favorite new transplants will live at the sanctuary for the remainder of their lives.
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Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.