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Grin and Bear It?

Local Matters


Published September 1, 2004 at 1:49 p.m.

Animal-curious visitors to this year's Champlain Valley Fair can ogle a new species of display: The Bear Mountain Wildlife Encounter, featuring Syrian brown bears, bills itself as an "educational" exhibit. But some local animal advocates question the exhibit's educational value and say it's nothing more than a circus act -- like the ones they're trying to ban in Burlington over concerns about public health and safety and the ethical treatment of animals.

At first glance, the "bear den" seems harmless. Inside a climate-controlled trailer, "Nanook" and "Tutter," two females born and raised in captivity, can be viewed in a "natural setting" -- if natural means rolling in sawdust on plastic rocks behind a Plexiglas wall and gnawing on rawhide chew toys. The exhibit also features stats on bear hunting and bear populations in all 50 states, a century-old grizzly trap and a photo of a newborn cub. A prerecorded announcement tells visitors that these females can grow to 400 pounds and live 15 to 20 years in the wild, or 20 to 35 years in captivity.

That's about the extent of the learning experience. During the 20-minute performance, two trainers dressed as Canadian Mounties -- incidentally, Bear Mountain Wildlife Encounter is based in Dallas, Texas -- walk the bears around a ring in muzzles and flowered collars, make them ride bicycles, jump hurdles, shoot hoops, walk on barrels and climb stairs on their front paws.

Burlington Unitarian minister Gary Kowalski equates it to circus freak shows that once featured two-headed calves and bearded ladies. "It's really a dated notion of what wild animals are and what they have to teach us," says Kowalski, a proponent of the ordinance to ban from the Queen City live-animal acts that use elephants, exotic cats and primates. "It teaches children a bad lesson. They don't really learn anything about nature, environmentalism or conservation by watching bears ride a bicycle or elephants walk in a circle holding each other's tails."

Another backer of the ordinance is Jodi Harvey, Burlington's animal-control officer. One reason? On an evening earlier this year, Harvey was called to Hunt Middle School when an outfit called Understanding Wildlife, Inc., put on an "educational" event that included the display of African servals -- exotic bobcats that are illegal in Vermont. According to Harvey, the exhibitor broke numerous other state and federal laws, including displaying exotic animals without the proper permits and allowing children to handle boa constrictors, which can transmit various zoonotic, or animal-to-human, diseases.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department later filed numerous charges against the exhibitor, and Harvey was deputized -- the whole process consumed a week of her time. But because she learned of the performance only hours before it began, Harvey was largely powerless to stop it. Why? "How can I seize and take into custody these types of animals?" she asks.

Harvey faced a similar dilemma several years ago with a 500-pound bear that was on display in Burlington's Leddy Park Arena. She recalls being appalled by the conditions in which the animal was kept. "He was in this box of a cage, the sun was beating down on him, and you could see that he was miserable. If that was a dog or cat, I would have owned that animal right then and there, and the owner would have been charged. But what do I do with a 500-pound bear?"

Of equal concern, she says, is the potential for one of these animals escaping. She says her department has neither the training nor the equipment to capture an escaped wildcat or a rampaging bear or elephant.

But James Hall, Bear Mountain's handler, says his animals come from six generations of captive bears and are as docile as dogs. As for the 10-foot security fence, he says, "It's to keep people out, not the bears in."

I asked an Essex police officer watching the bear show what his plan was, should one of the bears get loose. He just shrugged. "The only thing that ever got loose at the fair was a bull," he says. "And he got hit by a car."

How reassuring.


Republican National Convention delegates who back the party platform's marriage-amendment plank, take note: Gay and lesbian couples who join in civil unions tend to be more traditional than their gay and lesbian friends who don't. They're more likely to share bank accounts, own a home together, visit their in-laws together and send joint holiday cards.

Those are some of the findings of the first-ever demographic study of gay and lesbian couples who entered into civil unions in Vermont between June 2000 and June 2001. The research, conducted by University of Vermont psychologists Sondra Solomon and Esther Rothblum, compared more than 300 civil-union couples to 200 married heterosexual couples and 200 unwed gay and lesbian couples. The three-year project involved more than 1500 participants and examined couples' attitudes about love, religion, monogamy, childrearing and other domestic issues.

Among the study's more interesting findings: About 80 percent of the gay couples in civil unions were from out of state, which made their unions little more than symbolic gestures. Also, all gay and lesbian couples surveyed -- those joined in civil unions and those who weren't -- had higher levels of education than their married hetero counterparts.

Detailed results are published in the September/October issue of Psychology Today magazine. A follow-up study delving into participants' levels of satisfaction in their relationships is due out next year.