Inside a ‘drive-thru wildlife park’

In eastern Idaho, Bear World takes the wild out of bears.


Matt Martens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes and likes to hunt in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

For $16.96 a person, you can see bears — guaranteed furry stimulation. It’s called Yellowstone Bear World, a “drive-thru wildlife park” in eastern Idaho that’s crammed with over 40 black bears and grizzlies. There are also elk, mountain goats, whitetails, mule deer, wolves, moose and bison, all living in guarded enclosures on just over an acre of land.

If that sounds too small for that many animals, you’re right.

There is also a petting zoo, roller coaster, gift shop, pumpkin patch, hay-bale maze and spud-chucking course. At Bear World, you can lick an ice cream cone while a pot-bellied pig licks your palm. But naturally, the main event is the bears.

I’m a hunter and I’ve seen lots of bears in the wild, but my family hasn’t. And so one day I took my wife, three daughters and in-laws to this place of enclosed wildlife. There are two ways to see the bears. You can pay for a vehicle pass, and you and your family sit in the same car you came in to cruise the winding road through the park. You are instructed to go slow and keep your windows up. Or, for a couple of Benjamin Franklins, you can ride in the back of a tall, open-cab bus with strangers from all over the world.

An enthusiastic guide barks instructions over a loudspeaker as you set off. Every customer is given a pan of fresh bread and bagels so they can feed the bears.

I’ll admit it was somewhat exhilarating at first to toss chunks of bread to omnivores only feet from my fingers. But the feeling faded as the animals below us wandered around. I tried to put on my happy face. After all, this trip was for my family. There was even a special section where you could bottle-feed bear cubs. What else could a kid need?

That was exactly the problem. My children don’t need to feed bears. Bears are wild creatures fully adapted to feed themselves — every once in a while, in fact, they even eat people. Bears are bears, remember?

But these caged creatures seemed like fat, furry zombies. Some had to be yelled at by our guide, who called herself a curator. Her problem: The bears didn’t want to move because they were already gorged with food thrown from the bus that preceded ours by just 20 minutes. She tried particularly hard to stir a large sow with a beautiful brown cape, attempting to lure her from her bed by saying, “Here, pretty girl, here, pretty girl, come get your breakfast.”

A bear behind a fence in Yellowstone Bear World looks out.

A man beside me toting a camera the size of a NASA telescope was entranced, murmuring, “They’re so furry” and “They don’t look scary at all.” But I was heartbroken. The wild had been taken from these bears. It was gutting to see these bears stumble to the edge of the road just to grab handouts from people like me.

I remember one large boar sitting motionless on his rear, his legs sticking straight out, paws tucked between his knees. He looked like an over-bundled child at the bottom of a ski lift who’d just seen his snowboard slide down the mountain. This bear made me feel queasy. He was not acting like a bear. He seemed depressed.

Living a caged life always on display, begging for junk food, is not what these animals were born to do. I’m a hunter. I’ve killed and eaten bears, an act some would say I should be tortured for committing. But what I saw at Bear World was a fate much crueler than death by arrow or bullet. I saw bears that had become “institutionalized,” as actor Morgan Freeman puts it in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The film is about freedom, if you haven’t seen it — something these bears will never know.

Yellowstone Bear World no doubt educates. It shows people wild animals they probably will never see in the wild. Many bears that live there were born in captivity or are “problem bears,” meaning they’ve been trapped and relocated after becoming habituated to humans. I can understand that, but it sure as hell didn’t feel right watching a bear named Teton posing for the tourists, crumbs trickling down his chest, an unmistakable glint of shame in his eyes.

Bears are supposed to be untamed. They’re supposed to be a threat to humanity. They’re supposed to be hungry. But an overfed bear sitting on his rump in the middle of a road isn’t hungry anymore. He is full of us, and he is ashamed. Me, too.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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