Bear needs a savior - again | VIDEO
Rescuer can't keep him, can't turn him loose - and a deadline looms
October 2, 2007
A 500-pound black bear named Ben sits in his pen just off Iowa Highway 44 near Linden, on the western side of Dallas County.
As he pulls green grapes from a stem, cars whiz by with drivers who wonder whether they're hallucinating.
Was that really what I thought it was?
Almost every day, somebody pulls over to make sure. Some of the more passionate animal lovers bang on the farmhouse door and tell Ben's owner he should be ashamed of himself for keeping a wild animal locked in a cage.
Ben's owner, 38-year-old Mike Woodvine, tells the passionate animal lovers they don't know the full story.
"I didn't create the situation," he said. "Finding something better for Ben has always been my goal."
Woodvine wasn't jailing the animal when he brought it home five years ago. He was coming to the rescue.
Now he has to figure out how to do it again. This year, the Iowa Legislature passed a law preventing Iowans from owning, possessing or breeding dangerous, wild animals.
Ben has never spent a day in the wild. When he reaches for you with a 50-pound paw, he seems more like an overgrown Labrador retriever than a creature who could rip your arm off in the blink of an eye.
Although he's never shown Woodvine a dangerous side, that doesn't mean it isn't there. "One mistake," he said, "is all it takes."
Ben doesn't seem to know he's deprived, but wouldn't he be happier living the life bears were meant to live?
Probably, Woodvine replies, but this is the only life Ben knows, and the new law threatens to change that life.
While current owners with clean records are allowed to keep their animals, they're required to register and insure them, which presents problems. Woodvine is a self-employed plumber with a family, and taking care of Ben is almost like paying for college.
Woodvine says it costs $100 a week to keep Ben in fruits and nuts and veggies, and another $50 to $150 a month to keep his 1,000-gallon water tank full and fresh.
"You wouldn't believe how much water a 7-foot bear can splash."
And now there's an insurance bill. Where do you get a $100,000 liability policy for a black bear?
Even if you can, Woodvine says, the premiums come to almost $3,000 a year. Then there's the annual registration fee, which comes to $300 the first year, and the electronic monitoring device.
He has until Dec. 31 to register Ben with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. If he does nothing, he risks fines ranging from $200 to $2,000 for each violation.
"It's a good law," Woodvine said. "I agree with it. Breeding animals like Ben and selling them at these exotic animal auctions, it makes you sick. I don't understand how people can do that."
But if you can't afford the insurance and the fees, then what?
Five years ago, Woodvine thought he was rescuing Ben from the taxidermist. He didn't set out to own a bear when he saw the ad in the paper.
Ben was 2 months old. He'd been declawed, which means you can't turn him loose in the woods or the wildlife sanctuary.
Black bears aren't endangered. Zoos aren't standing in line to adopt them. Ben's original owners were a Fort Dodge couple with two cubs for sale.
"I'm sure his brother is stuffed or skinned somewhere," Woodvine said. "That's how a lot of these bears end up."
Woodvine, for some reason, thought this was his problem. He bought Ben for $800 and proceeded to build a Black Bear Wally World for him.
The main living area is a redecorated corncrib with a climbing ladder and a platform. A 30-foot run leads to the water tank. Woodvine even dug a hole, piled up some rocks and made Ben a hibernation cave.
When they get the complaints, the deputy sheriffs and the conservation officers drive out for a look. Although it isn't the ideal situation, they conclude, the bear is in good hands.
Then comes the disclaimer: This is what can happen when even well-intentioned humans keep exotic animals.
"They use me as an example as someone who got in over his head," said Woodvine, who's losing hope.
"I can't even begin to think of all the places I've called and all the hours I've spent online trying to find a home for him. The more you dig into it, the more you see how hopeless it is. No way I'm going to be able to comply with the law. I'm just not."
He fears he'll end up having Ben destroyed.
When people say it's cruel to keep a bear in a pen, he knows how to shut them up.
"Tell me what to do then."
He's still waiting for the answer - at (641) 744-2048.
Columnist Marc Hansen can be reached at (515) 284-8534 or firstname.lastname@example.org