Fair to include grizzly act, despite PETA protests

Yogi the grizzly stands over trainer Dexter Osborn at the end of a show at the Greeley Stampede last month. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Mesa County Fair officials to cancel Osborn's grizzly bear exhibit, scheduled for next week, over safety concerns. Photo by Joshua Polson Greeley Tribune Yogi the grizzly stands over trainer Dexter Osborn at the end of a show at the Greeley Stampede last month. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked Mesa County Fair officials to cancel Osborn's grizzly bear exhibit, scheduled for next week, over safety concerns. Photo by Joshua Polson Greeley Tribune

Despite a request from animal-rights activists to nix a performance featuring live grizzly bears, the Mesa County Fair has decided to keep the scheduled act.

Fair organizers first heard from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, in a July 9 letter citing safety and animal welfare concerns with "A Grizzly Experience." The letter mentioned concerns regarding an incident last year at a fair in which a grizzly bear injured a handler after acting strangely. An eyewitness account described the bear clawing the handler's face, drawing blood in front of shocked spectators at the Saratoga County Fair in New York.

PETA launched a campaign against the owner of the act, Dexter Osborn, after the incident, urging fairs and other outlets to stop supporting the performances, although PETA officials said none have canceled the show at their request. The organization also states in a letter to Mesa County Fair organizers that it's concerned about behaviors that captive bears exhibit, urging officials to consider animal welfare and cancel the "cruel bear shows" and support animal-free entertainment.

Osborn did not answer phone calls or emails seeking comment on Tuesday.

Osborn, 32, travels with the bears, performing a show that involves feeding the bears marshmallows and standing on tree stumps, according to videos posted online. His largest bear is named Yogi, weighs 600 pounds and is 7 years old, according to his website. He also uses two smaller bears in his act, named Dottie and Lea. The show's website bills the act as a way to teach about bear safety and educate the public about bears. A photo on the Grizzly Experience website shows bears in a caged arena with a banner advertising "$5 Feed a Live Grizzly Bear."

Osborn's business has received citations from wildlife officials in the past year for not having the proper documents to import cubs into his facility in Naples, Florida. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited him for violating rules after posting photos on social media of one of his bears standing on its hind legs with its paws wrapped around a woman, who turned out to be his son's karate teacher, according to the incident report.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also cited him in February for having inadequate facilities for his bears, including cages too small to satisfy regulations. At the time of the inspection, he had four bears, though one had been killed by the others since the previous inspection.

Osborn was also cited by the USDA in 2013 when a bear named Boo Boo escaped and wasn't found until three days later, miles away. According to the citation, he had entered a bear enclosure and didn't secure the door, and two cubs began fighting.

"The licensee stated he began to break up the scuffle when 'Boo Boo' darted out the door and the safety area," according to the inspection report.

PETA cited these incidents in its letter to the fair board asking Mesa County to cancel the show, and also said the "educational value" of the act isn't a genuine representation of wild bears.

"Putting bears on display and forcing them to perform little stunts in front of a large crowd doesn't educate the public on their behaviors at all," said Debbie Metzler, PETA's supervising captive wildlife specialist.

Metzler said the injury with the handler last year wasn't surprising.

"Bears are wild animals. They have been known to lash out in frustration," she said. "They have bitten, mauled and attacked humans."

A 5-year-old girl survived a backyard bear attack at her home on Orchard Mesa in May, and received 77 stitches after the incident. Colorado is home to as many as 20,000 black bears, according to wildlife officials.

"We thought people would like to see bears," said Mesa County Fair Board President Kyle Carstens.

Fair organizers spend months planning the entertainment, Carstens said. They visit trade shows where entertainment is promoted, including the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs, and rely on references from other fairs as well. The goal is to provide entertainment that draws attendance to the fair and to offer variety from year to year, he said.

The grizzly act cost $8,000, he said.

"We go through a big process to select these kinds of acts and attractions and they're all verified and reputable through the fair association," he said. "There's no reason for us not to move forward."

The bear act was selected as the signature animal act the fair likes to provide annually, Carstens said, after a tiger show they pursued was unavailable. In the past, the fair has featured the Wild about Monkeys act and another one involving wolves. PETA is urging the fair to consider not bringing in any wild animal acts in the future.

"We try to have an animal act just because it brings out a lot of people," Carstens said.

He met with one other member of the fair board, the facilities director and fairgrounds supervisor, as well as two members of county staff, to discuss security issues on Tuesday afternoon. After the meeting, he announced the bear show would go on despite PETA's protests.

"There was never a discussion to cancel," he said. "We want the public to be fully aware that all of our acts, all of our vendors are insured, they all have to carry liability insurance to be on the grounds. It's not like they're fly-by-night people. It's a regulated event. We have done our homework."

When asked if they were aware of the incident at the fair in Saratoga County or the citations Osborn received, brought up by PETA, Carstens said he and the fair board didn't know about them.

Carstens said fair personnel have been in contact with the agent handling the show to make sure expectations are clear and safety rules are followed carefully.

"Feeding the bears, not going to happen here," he said. "It's just a demonstration where kids can sit there and watch the bear."

The event on the fair's schedule posted online lists it as the "Wicked Wrench Grizzly Bears" and the show is scheduled 13 times during the fair, from July 24-28.

Other entertainment at this year's free fair includes remote-control car racing, free musical entertainment, bingo, woodcarving and a carnival. See the full schedule at mesacountyfair.com.

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