Monday, September 3, 2012

Rescue Bears

In the olden days (but not so long ago that I don't remember 'em), among the most popular tourist attractions in the Upper Peninsula were the local garbage dumps. On a typical summer evening, cars jostled for parking, lawn chairs got dragged from the trunk, beer cans were popped and shutters on cameras clicked furiously as all across the region tourists gathered to catch a glimpse of that most favored resident of the great Northwoods, the American Black Bear.

Then the dumps were replaced by modern landfills. But bears are nothing if not opportunistic and that didn't quell their taste for easy pickin's, what with campgrounds all over the region still offering garbage bin buffets. 

For example, one day at the edge of dusk we returned to camp at the Presque Isle. Near the entrance to the campground a dozen or so disparate folk were seated on lawn chairs, children cavorting in front.

"What the Hell?" we wondered.

A glance to our left supplied the answer: a mother bear busily taught her two cubs to retrieve food from a screened trash container, wildly entertaining the tourists in the process. We just shook our heads and drove on into camp, not wanting to see what'd happen to those fine family folk if they discovered how fast momma bear could cover the spare 30 yards between them. In that event they'd have had barely a chance to get their butts up out of those chairs, with no chance at all to protect their kids.

Eventually, critter resistant trash receptacles were invented, made of metal and requiring a thumb to open. Being creatures of habit and with the ready grocery store of our waste finally removed, that went hard for the bears.

Today our ursine friends are back to foraging the woods for a natural diet and are, by and large, no longer dependent upon our trash to live.

So the question is: what to do, when visiting the Northwoods and you want to see a bear? While it's certainly possible you'll meet one in the wilderness along any number of trails, trust me -- that's not only poor odds, but might prove way more of a thrill than most tourists prefer.

Your best, safest bet is to visit Oswald's Bear Ranch, centrally located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. And as a bonus, you'll be helping bears when you do.


Dean & Jewel Oswald have devoted their later life to the welfare of bears.

Dean's the sort of Northwoods guy for whom you're inclined to feel an instant respect. Sturdily built -- one might even say "a bear of a man" if one were inclined to lean on apt cliché -- he's possessed of clear eyes and firm handshake. During the brief time I spent with him, Dean was gracious & easy to speak with.

I asked him how he got started with the Ranch and he said: "I wanted a bear. Back in the 80's that was still legal, so I got one."

And of course, as is true of any rich narrative, there's more to the story than that.

Born in Bay City Michigan, Dean saw his first bears at the dump, while on vacation near Newberry. Now, most folk were content to go home and show off blurry snapshots of bears seen in the 'wilds' of Michigan, no matter that they had to visit the dump to do that. But in Dean, something about these complex, avidly curious, often gregarious creatures struck a resonant chord.

Dean Oswald raised his family while working as a fireman in Bay City, so an inclination towards service was well established before he ever got that 1st bear. You can't say Dean "retired" to the UP as so many ex-tourists do, 'cause nothing about the Ranch speaks of retirement, but rather a calling fulfilled.

With State & Federal restrictions on private ownership of bears gradually tightened, Oswald's Bear Ranch came into its own.

Today the Ranch is a rescue center, operated under authority granted by both the State and Federal Governments. The facility consists of four separate habitats that at present serve as refuge for more than two dozen bears, many of which would be dead had Oswald's not been there for them. 

Typically, the call comes in to Dean from the DNR -- they've found a dead sow with crying cubs, or maybe they've confiscated an abused bear from illegal private ownership. Those are the bears that come to the Ranch.

Now before we go any farther, I'll anticipate the question: "Wouldn't these creatures be better off taking their chances in the wild than to spend their lives in an enclosure?"

What's true is that while a cougar or wolf might need more than a hundred square mile territory in order to prosper, part of the innate charm of the American Black Bear is just how content they can be. With water, a ready food source and the company of other bears, our ursine friends tend to get way comfortable and go about the serious business of enjoying themselves.

What's true is that for a variety of reasons, many of the bears under Dean's care are unlikely to have survived on their own. At Oswald's, they flourish. I asked Dean about the free roaming bears of the region and whether those gave him any trouble. He told me that for a while they'd come sniffing around the fencing, but he thought his bears told 'em to "Go away" and mostly, they did.

Man, that's bears for 'ya, if you didn't already know.

Once the bears at Oswald's lay in to hibernate for the winter, Dean & Jewel travel the country to visit other wildlife sanctuaries and learn ways they might make even better, the lives of those bears who've come under their charge.

When I visited the Ranch the bears were out & about enjoying the summer sun -- playing with each other, clambering up trees and happily feasting on the occasional apple. Doing all the things you'd want to see a bear do, only unburdened by dependence on what humans leave behind and living long, healthy lives in the loving embrace of a family devotedly giving back to a creature long iconic to the Northwoods, the American Black Bear.

So while you're on the road across the Superior Basin and if one of your ambitions is to see a bear, don't stop off at the dump, those are closed. And don't foolishly wait around by the garbage cans at camp, our inventiveness has finally outmatched the legendary ingenuity of bears.

Instead, visit Oswald's Bear Ranch, where you'll find all the Northwoods memories of bears you can properly wish for -- at no risk to you and no more risk to the bears.

'Cause when you don't know the story and all you've seen is a flyer at a kiosk or a blurb in a brochure, you might at first glance confuse Oswald's with the sort of crude 'Wildlife Zoo' once common to the "northwoods" of Wisconsin; those dumps by another name, with their sad displays of sadder animals penned up for the edification & amusement of tourists and now mostly just roiled memory, fast fading.

Turns out, Oswald's is the antithesis of those.

What's true is that the Ranch is in keeping with the finest of contemporary concerns for the Great Spirit that nourishes all denizens of the wilderness and Dean Oswald himself is a modern man indeed.


  1. Wonderful people, those Oswalds. Thank you for spreading the word about them. That was an infant bear cub, wasn't it?

  2. It was, yes. And noisy buggers they are, too. The three youngest bears onsite when I was there were particularly vocal when being fed.