Yellowstone Bear World is not like other zoos. In fact, it doesn’t even brand itself as a zoo at all. Google Maps lists it as a “park offering close-up wildlife views.” The owners call it a “private animal exhibition.” 

Located past the Snake River on the way to Yellowstone National Park on Idaho’s Highway 20, the family-owned business attracts thousands of visitors a year, each paying around $24, unless their age qualifies them for a discount. It’s hidden in a grove of trees, surrounded by farm fields fed by wheel line irrigation. The place is as classically Mountain West as the hillside geoglyph, visible in the distance, that marks the city of Rexburg with a big letter “R.”

As we inch through the park in our car at five miles per hour on a recent afternoon in May, a young woman in a red staff shirt opens a metal gate and signals for us to drive through. There, only a matter of yards away, sits a 1,000-pound grizzly bear gnawing on a pile of seafood and beef scattered atop a concrete feeding platform. 

He’s the first animal that park founder Michael Ferguson acquired in 1998 — a retired Hollywood bear named Chorky, now 30 years old. He’s one of nearly 75 bears housed at the 125-acre park, where visitors can drive their cars straight through the bears’ outdoor habitats, throw them bread and jerky, and hand-feed bottles of formula to the babies — a controversial practice that serves as one of the park’s main attractions and costs $55.

The park rounds out its business opportunities with a petting zoo, gift shop and mini-amusement park. But Yellowstone Bear World — also known simply as “Bear World” colloquially — started with an entrepreneurial man passionate about local wildlife who set out to own a collection of wild animals he could display to the public.

At its heart, Bear World is a for-profit business — not a conservation club or refuge. All of the animals there have been captive-bred, born and raised. None are ever reintroduced to the wild, and over the years dozens have been sent to other zoos or private facilities, U.S. Department of Agriculture records show. 

As a private animal exhibit — one of about 2,000 similar facilities registered with the USDA — Bear World inhabits a precarious place at the crossroads of commercial interests, ethics and conservation. In the eyes of its owners, keeping animals captive serves the greater good of wildlife appreciation and family fun, but according to some ecologists and animal rights activists, owning captive wildlife is an unethical practice.

With certain studies showing people become more interested in conservation after close-up encounters with animals and other, opposing research concluding that people view animals as less valuable after seeing them in captivity compared to the wild, the question is: Does a private wildlife park do more harm or good for the species displayed behind its fences? 

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When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark launched their westward expedition in 1804, there were more than 50,000 grizzly bears roaming the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After extensive hunting and human expansion, however, the species faced near extinction. By 1975, there were just 136 grizzlies left in the Greater Yellowstone area — where forests, meadows and a healthy supply of cutthroat trout have provided a lush home for the animals for generations. 

“Bear World inhabits a precarious place at the crossroads of commercial interests, ethics and conservation.”

As a little boy in the 1960s, Ferguson loved to pile with his family into a station wagon and drive through Yellowstone National Park to get a glimpse of the wildlife, says his son, Courtney Ferguson, who now runs the business. The young Idahoan was charmed by the animals he saw, especially the grizzly bears.

Even though numbers were dwindling, it was common at the time for bears to wander along roadsides and developed sections of the park, drawn in by food and trash, according to the National Park Service. “Although observing these bears was very popular with park visitors, it was not good for people or bears,” the National Park Service website reads. By the time Ferguson was taking his own kids to Yellowstone, a bear protection program had successfully redirected the grizzlies and black bears to natural food sources. 

In light of fewer opportunities for wild bear sightings, Ferguson wanted to re-create the thrill of close-up wildlife encounters for others. The Bear World founder set out to create a menagerie. First, he had to work with state officials to find an exception to a ban on the commercial importation of bears, which was meant to protect local wildlife from diseases and crossbreeding. 

Today, Bear World is a thriving business and wild grizzlies have made a heroic comeback. There are now close to 1,400 in the lower 48 states, including over 700 in the Greater Yellowstone area, thanks to wildlife management and conservation efforts led by groups like the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. But threats remain — including climate change, which is jeopardizing food sources and pushing animals into new habitats. In 2018, a federal judge restored protections for grizzly bears within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem under the Endangered Species Act. They had been delisted as a threatened species just one year earlier. 

Courtney Ferguson says Yellowstone Bear World isn’t directly involved in ongoing conservation efforts, but he sees his family’s private park playing an important role in supporting wildlife education and appreciation. Bear World’s website encourages visitors to the nearby national park to keep a safe distance from wild animals. “That doesn’t mean you can’t see or feed a bear during your Yellowstone vacation. That’s what Yellowstone Bear World is all about,” a page on conservation reads. 

Most importantly, Courtney Ferguson says, Bear World brings families together and provides enriching experiences for kids and adults alike. But according to behavioral ecologists like Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, that mission of helping families appreciate animals may be in direct conflict with what is best for the animals themselves.  

Decades before the first U.S. zoo opened in Philadelphia in 1874, wild animals, including black bears and grizzly bears, had been kept captive in the U.S. and used in roadshows, circus acts or bear fighting rings. Captive bears have often been found in dismal conditions, with cages so small they can’t turn around and arthritis caused from standing on metal or concrete, says Debbie Metzler, PETA’s associate director of captive animal law enforcement. 

Gradually, these cruel practices have become illegal or unpopular, she says. Many circuses have stopped forcing wild animals to perform, experts have developed higher standards for the treatment of animals in captivity and the U.S. government has introduced laws to help protect animals, like the Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act. But with limited oversight of privately owned wildlife, abuses still happen. 

Private animal exhibitions like Bear World are held to lower standards than other animal-caretaking businesses, such as zoos and sanctuaries, which have their own agencies for accreditation. USDA rules ensure that animals have clean enclosures with food, water and enough room for “adequate freedom of movement.” Metzler says, “When we see violations, it’s extremely concerning because the protections are so minimal.”

Multiple researchers have recorded “zoochosis” or stereotypic behaviors in captive bears, like pacing and rocking back and forth, which indicates an animal is experiencing stress and depression. Studies like a 2003 paper by researchers at the University of Oxford and a 2016 paper by scientists in Taiwan suggest these behaviors are related to a lack of natural stimuli and roaming space. In the wild, male black bears’ natural habitats consist of areas ranging from 10 to 59 square miles. Male grizzly bears cover even bigger territories, from 200 to 500 square miles — larger than any enclosed habitat. 

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the country’s leading body for establishing standards for animal welfare, has more detailed rules when it comes to animal care, including requirements for nutrition and “enrichment activities” that stimulate an animal’s natural behavior — such as climbing, burrowing, foraging or hunting — as much as possible. A 2007 review of animal welfare in zoos conducted by researchers at universities in Poland showed that bears have advanced cognitive abilities and can solve complex tasks requiring abstract thought. Therefore, they require frequent sensory stimulation in captivity, via changes to their environment or varied food delivery methods. 

Certified animal sanctuaries are held to the highest standards of all. Noelle Almrud is senior director of Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which is accredited by The Global Federation of Sanctuaries and houses 800 animals, including four bears. Some were seized from the wild because of safety concerns and cannot be released. Sanctuaries like Black Beauty Ranch provide homes for animals that have nowhere else to go and seek to end the practice of captive breeding that perpetuates life in captivity, Almrud says.

The property hosts some tours but prohibits all public contact with the animals. That’s because myriad studies evaluating species from South American sea lions to captive koalas have found that proximity to humans can prompt stress and aggression. The four bears at Black Beauty Ranch are individually housed, or are housed with cub and mother together, because they are solitary in the wild. Research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2006 suggests enclosures for solitary animals should be built to allow the animals to keep their distance. 

Bear World is not accredited as a zoo or sanctuary but operates as a private business under the supervision of the USDA, which regularly inspects the facility and provides health certificates for the animals. At Bear World, bears live on a natural surface of dirt and grass, with the ability to roam freely, burrow and hibernate in the winter when the park shuts down. However, the bears have limited opportunities to perform some natural behaviors, like climbing, because the trees are wrapped in metal sheets to prevent it. The bears are also constantly exposed to humans and kept together in close proximity to each other. All of these factors can cause psychological and physical stress, Almrud explains. 

Ben Williamson, programs director at animal welfare organization World Animal Protection, says wildlife should not be kept in captivity at all, regardless of accreditation standards. He says it is unnatural and only benefits the people making money from the operation. Unlike domesticated animals, like dogs, cats and farm animals — which have been bred over tens of thousands of years to rely on humans for their care — bears maintain their wild instincts and have needs that cannot be met in an enclosure. “These are still wild animals. They haven’t undergone genetic changes,” Williamson says. If zoos were serious about conservation, he says, they would be paying for park rangers and habitat protection instead of breeding animals. “All you are doing is bringing more babies to draw in more willing tourists to gawk at them in captivity,” he adds.

Liz Tyson, another animal rights advocate and program director at Born Free USA, said one of the most harmful practices is breeding bears for profit. Twelve baby bears were born at Bear World this year. Six stayed and will be the center of the park’s bottle-feeding experience. The others were sent to zoos, sanctuaries and “places like that,” a tour guide explained during our visit. 

Casey Anderson, a naturalist who previously worked at Bear World and has told his story in a book and on National Geographic shows, said animal handlers at the park would confiscate the babies at a few weeks old after tranquilizing the mother bear while she was sleeping. A public petition to the USDA written by eight animal welfare groups in 2012 argues the separation of big cats or bears shortly after birth for the purpose of cub-petting or bottle-feeding is distressing for both mother and baby, and prevents the development of key survival tactics. Deseret did not receive a comment from Bear World regarding this at the time of publication.

“From a developmental position, from an emotional position, they need to be with their mothers for the natural period of time; they need to not be handled by humans, because that will potentially cause psychological, emotional and behavioral issues for them for their entire lives,” Tyson says, before also noting that most breeders don’t remove puppies and kittens from their mothers before they are weaned. 

Annual breeding is not sustainable at a facility with limited space, and because Bear World does not raise all the bears it breeds, animal transfer records cite where some baby bears have been sent away from Bear World. USDA animal transfer records show that in addition to sending a bear to Joe Exotic in 2013, Bear World sent several bears in 2000 to Troy Hyde of Animals of Montana, whose captive animal permit was revoked last year after more than a dozen Animal Welfare Act violations — including violations against bears and other animals. In 2003, Bear World shipped a cub to Predators in Action in California, which hired out the cub for film appearances. The business no longer provides animals to the entertainment industry after one bear killed a handler in 2008.

Over the last decade, Bear World has sent at least 65 cubs and 19 adult bears to Gregg Woody — an animal broker in Illinois who has been cited for sending bears to slaughter — with some bears transferred while Woody’s license was suspended by the USDA. However, the federal Animal Welfare Act places full responsibility on the suspended exhibitor when it comes to obtaining animals during their suspension, so Bear World is not considered at fault.

Courtney Ferguson says Bear World only trades animals with USDA-certified institutions and the primary purpose is to keep genetics diverse and prevent inbreeding. “It’s standard practice in the industry,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with it.” 

Animals are just one part of the equation when it comes to zoos and private animal exhibits. Humans are the other half, and some experts, like Rob Vernon, senior vice president of communications and strategy for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, say that accredited facilities — which Bear World is not — are a boon to people and help conservation efforts by supporting research and education. For example, more than 130 AZA-accredited zoos provided over $220 million in funding for conservation initiatives in 2019, not to mention contributing $16 billion a year to the U.S. economy, according to AZA. 

The research is divided on how people’s attitudes are affected by seeing and interacting with captive animals. Two long-term studies published in the International Zoo Yearbook in 2013 showed how public involvement in reintroduction programs for native freshwater fish, including behind-the-scenes aquarium tours and classroom experiences, piqued public interest and fostered appreciation and compassion for these species. Another 2016 study from the scientific journal Zoo Biology showed that visitors who had up-close encounters with elephants at the San Diego Zoo reported greater importance of having elephants in the wild and scored higher on willingness to do conservation actions. 

Two earlier studies from 1978 and 1989 showed people experienced increased fear of animals after a zoo visit as well as the tendency to describe them as “less graceful, less dignified, and of less value” than students who saw them in a natural setting. And a 2011 report published in the journal Plos One demonstrated that people who saw pictures of humans with chimpanzees were more likely to assume they are not an endangered species and think they would make good pets. 

Bekoff, the behavioral ecologist from Colorado, says there is a huge value in learning about animals, but there are better ways to do it than viewing wildlife in captivity. Curious people can gain just as much, if not more, from watching documentary footage of animals as they live in the wild, he suggests. Increasingly, zoos from Houston to the Bronx are using interactive, virtual experiences to increase access to wildlife education and capture an audience’s attention. 

“The vast majority of people, even if they learn something, don’t contribute to future conservation projects in terms of money,” Bekoff says. “That’s the bottom line.”  

A group of Bear World workers enters the cub enclosure at the center of the park. The baby bears, kept separate from the adults, cling to their human caretakers with all four limbs, like human children holding onto their mothers. “This one has to be cuddled before he will eat,” a woman with a blond ponytail says as the six-month-old cub sucks on her neck.

The animals already have long claws they use to paw at each other and their human feeders, reminding me for a moment that, though born and bred at a park, these animals are wild. When the handlers finally pull out the baby bottles, the bears are better behaved, sitting still on wooden platforms while they guzzle the white formula. 

The crowd, including an older couple from Rexburg with season passes and a young family from Washington state who are road-schooling, ogles the baby animals. There’s no denying, they are absolutely adorable. I’m smiling and so is everyone around me. 

Leaving the park, the sound of carnival rides wanes in the distance. A sign at the exit reads, “Thank you for visiting us at Bear World. Have a Great Day!” But I can’t help but wonder, what happened to the six babies that were shipped out of the park? And what will happen to the 75 other bears as new cubs are added to the collection every year? 

The animal experts and activists I talked to were clear: Private wildlife exhibits do not benefit the animals enclosed. Whether or not the experience of seeing wildlife up close can prompt support for conservation comes down to the individual. Opinions about Bear World and its practice of breeding bears for business depend on where a person’s opinions fall on the spectrum of animal rights. But I wonder how many people come to Bear World and don’t even consider the ethics. Bear World is not a zoo. But whatever you decide it is depends on what you want to see.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.