Having been a docent for six years at the well-run Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, I’m always a little leery of what I perceive to be “low rent” zoos that are not accredited. Always a little worried that I’ll encounter animals that may not have the best living conditions or diet. And I was a little afraid of this being the case when I put a bear ranch on our itinerary. On first glance when we arrived at Oswald’s Bear Ranch just outside of Newberry, I was not put at ease. The odd collection of buildings and the dirt parking lot and the pit toilets didn’t scream “professional” to me.
Then we walked into the gift shop, which you go through to get to the area where the cubs are, and I heard a vaguely familiar male voice say, “Hello, Erin.” I looked around and saw a pair of very blue eyes I recognized but was having trouble placing. Then it suddenly hit me.
The kid on the left with the sprayed-on gray hair and the prop wheelchair was the person talking to me in the gift shop of Oswald’s Bear Ranch. And he wasn’t just there, he was working there. Of course he was. Oswald is his last name. (BTW, yes, that’s me in the black leather miniskirt, red shoes, and long black wig. This was Witness for the Prosecution, the fall play my senior year of high school, where I was the double-crossing leading lady. If you’ve seen the movie version, my part was played by Marlene Dietrich. I was also in Arsenic and Old Lace, The Bald Soprano, Mr. Winkler’s Birthday Party, and Hello, Dolly! with this young man.)
But back to the bears…
The ranch was started by his grandfather, Dean Oswald, in 1997, a couple years before my friend and fellow actor Dustin graduated from high school. Apparently he moved up to the UP almost immediately and has been working in the family business for nearly twenty years. Oswald’s Bear Ranch, it turns out, is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and the bears there seem happy, well fed, and well adjusted. They have huge enclosures in natural surroundings. They are beloved by the staff. And they are there because they have been injured, abandoned, or abused. Apparently the Department of Natural Resources calls on Dean fairly regularly to take in young bears who were purchased (by idiots) as cubs but have (obviously) grown into animals that are difficult to handle and very definitely not pets.
The website states their mission is to “strive to advance the care of abused or abandoned bears through rescue efforts” adding that the bears at Oswald’s Bear Ranch are cared for through private funds and donations. With nearly 30 bears living there, including cubs, they can always use help. You can find a donation button on this page of their website.
Each enclosure is double fenced to keep bears and visitors at a safe distance from one another, which makes good photos hard to get. (There are lots on the ranch’s website.) But for an extra fee (we dropped more money here than most other UP attractions we visited) you can get photos taken with one of the cubs and even pet them while you’re at it. Which, of course, we had to do.
We also bought a bag of quartered apples from the cafe to toss over the fences and feed the adolescents and adults.
I would have liked to have a formal tour where we were told the personal stories behind some of the bears living there, but it was all basically self-serve. After chatting a bit more with my old school chum in the gift shop, my son and I had more UP delights to see and a ticking clock to catch a boat. We drove toward Grand Marais (Pro Tip: the road between Newberry and Grand Marais is “seasonal” — read: dirt — and very winding for about 12 long miles, so if you’re in a hurry, take another route) so Calvin could get a glimpse of the Grand Sable Dunes from Log Slide.
And then it was on to Munising to take our long-anticipated Pictured Rocks cruise…