I've always felt a spiritual connection with grizzly bears. They're slow, chunky and have an overwhelming affection for peanut butter–just like I do. From time to time, I'm fortunate enough to spot one, or at least the signs of one's passing, while we're in Alberta. But, as they generally don't want anything to do with people, being able to spend a prolonged amount of time with one is an incredible treat.
It's a treat that I had the opportunity to partake in earlier today.
Around 30 minutes outside of Bozeman, Montana, we saw the first sign for it: Montana Grizzly Encounter. I wasn't into it at first: captive bears aren't cool. I checked out their website as we drove. Rescue bears. Rescue bears are very cool. Five minutes later we were pulling into the Montana Grizzly Encounter. Sixteen bucks for two adults and a score of steps later, we were in.
MGE was founded in 2004 and has been giving homes to bears rescued from cruel captivity ever since. Five of the six bears that MGE shelters were rescued from inhumane situations from all across the United States. Their sixth bear, Bella, was an orphan discovered in Alaska. On her own, she wouldn't have stood a chance. At the sanctuary, she's living the best life that she possibly can. You won't find any bars or cages at MGE. The bears have a temperature controlled enclosure that they can enter or exit as they please. There's a large area for the bears to do bear things in outside of the public eye. There's a large enclosure with a viewing area for the public to watch the grizzlies do other bear things in as well.
MGE's bears aren't forced to perform. Instead, the grizzlies are enticed to come out and show themselves with positive reinforcement: peanut butter, berries and other treats. In order to snarf their snacks down, they have to forage the enclosure for them. As the bears hunt for food, you'll have plenty of opportunities to take photos of the handsome beasts. They know they're pretty. While we were there, a big male named Brutus came out for a stroll. As he licked peanut butter off of the rocks around his enclosure, we were treated to a lecture about bear safety, why bears, typically, want nothing to do with us, and a million other bits and pieces concerning what makes them so cruel and, thanks to the folktales and Hollywood, so misunderstood.
We've traveled past Montana Grizzly Encounter a few times over the past couple of years. I really wish that we'd visited sooner. All proceeds made by MGE go towards educational programs and keeping their bears fed and happy. If you're in the area, check them out. It's a safe, serene and responsible way to enjoy a massive species that you might otherwise go your whole life without coming face to face with.
All images via Seamus Bellamy