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      Bearly legal: Lawmakers discuss bill to let the public touch and pose with cubs

      People could soon be smiling for the camera next to a bear cub if the Michigan Senate approves a bear bill.

      People could soon be smiling for the camera next to a bear cub if the Michigan Senate approves a bear bill.

      Senate Bill 44 would allow the public to touch and get photos taken with bear cubs when they are 36 weeks old and weigh under 90 pounds. The Michigan Senate is set to vote on the bill Thursday.

      The Humane Society of the United States opposes the bear bill stating:

      "The practice of handling and using bear cubs for photo opportunities and interactions with the public seriously compromises animal welfare and threatens public safety. It is stressful for bear cubs to be prematurely removed from the nurturing care of their mothersâ??a common practice to facilitate public handling. During photo and play sessions with the public, the cubs may also be exposed to abusive and excessive handling.

      In December, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed similar legislation because it also would have allowed more facilities to acquire and keep large carnivores. But he said he supported a provision pertaining to bear cubs.

      The Oswald's Bear Ranch in Newberry had to stop letting visitors pose for photos while feeding black bear cubs last year after being told it was illegal.

      Dean Oswald wrote a letter to Governor Snyder in support of the bear bill. A portion of that letter states:

      "Most everyone who visits Oswald's Bear Ranch leaves with greater respect for bear and a greater appreciation for wildlife, and that is what I believe I was put on this earth to provide.

      For more than 15 years, we have allowed families from all over the world to have their picture taken with bear cubs. We have a permit to hold wildlife from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and are licensed as a class C licensee by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the federal Animal Welfare Act. It was our understanding that we could allow limited contact with bear cubs by allowing people who want to take photos with small cubs to do so. However, last summer we were informed that it was illegal under state law, so we immediately suspended that activity to the great disappointment of thousands of visitors through the summer season.

      Since then, I have worked with Senator Casperson on amendments to the law to allow families to have their picture taken with a bear cub under 36 weeks of age, and I have worked with Senator Hune on my operation becoming Zoological Association of America (ZAA) accredited. The ZAA specializes in small, private businesses like mine to provide standards for animal care and handling."