Last summer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared that Oswald's Bear Ranch in Newberry could no longer allow the public to touch and take pictures with the bear cubs, but a recent amendment to the state's Large Carnivore Act is allowing the ranch to continue normal operations.
Ella and Kendra are two female nine-week-old black bear cubs that have only just barely opened their eyes. They are the newest and youngest additions to the ranch and currently the only cubs that will be shared with visitors this upcoming season. Dean Oswald, owner and founder of Oswald's Bear Ranch, rescued them from euthanasia in Indiana earlier this year.
Oswald began adopting and caring for bears in 1984 and opened for business in 1997. In 28 years, the ranch has allowed visitors to take pictures with bear cubs, but in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began enforcing the Large Carnivore Act, stating that the ranch may not allow patrons to come into contact with a large carnivore over 20 weeks of age.
"It was ridiculous. I mean, they must have better things to do than to stop somebody from taking pictures with cub bears," said Oswald.
Since black bears are typically born in January, they are always over 20 weeks old by the time the ranch opens in May. Prior to 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would inspect the ranch and always supported the picture-taking, even when the bears were well over 20 weeks old. According to Oswald, in all 28 years, there has never been an incident with the cubs with the exception of the occasional minor scratch.
Last summer, business at the ranch suffered and many tourists left disappointed. Oswald went to Senator Tom Casperson for help, and on Tuesday. Governor Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 48, now known as Public Act 8 of 2013, allowing patrons to touch the cubs up to 36 weeks old or 90 pounds, long enough to last the whole summer.
"I think the governor did us a great favor. I think he did the U.P. a great favor," Oswald said.
Oswald expects a busy season for 2013. He was visited by a few early tourists from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The ranch is not yet open for the season, but Oswald allowed the Brown family to meet Ella and Kendra.
"It feels kind of like holding a cat, except they squirm a lot more and its fur is a lot more rough," said 14-year-old Cody Brown.
"This was a very unique experience and I would love to come back again," said Donna Brown.
Oswald expects to see at least 15,000 cars pass through in 2013.
"We put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces. It's been good for business, it's been good for our whole area," Oswald said.
"It's really been stressful, and now to have it over and done with, we hope that we can get things back to normal and get the business going and greet people as they come," said co-owner and Dean's wife, Jewel Oswald.
Thanks to SB-48, visitors can take pictures with Ella and Kendra, and see the other 29 bears in their habitats.
Oswald's Bear Ranch opens on Friday, May 24, for Memorial Day weekend through the end of September. The ranch has 80 acres, a private lake, and no cages. The only caged bears are Ella and Kendra who live indoors and need to be bottle-fed.