Five rescued black bears from Ohio should feel grass beneath their paws for the first time today when they arrive at their new home at Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Spearfish.

Until their owner in Prospect, Ohio, decided to relinquish custody, the two male bears — Grunt and Little Bear — and three females — Holly, Lilly and Ginger — lived in small, cramped pens on a concrete pad. 

The bears, all between the ages of nine and 12, lived in cages that were 5 feet tall, 15 feet wide and 30 feet long for several years.

Fred Erdman, president of the sanctuary board, said they were contacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in South Dakota because their local inspector knew the sanctuary had space for more bears.

"She called us to say there are five bears that needed to be rescued," Erdman said. "Knowing our capabilities and that we had room for them, it wasn't a terribly hard decision by any means."

Bobbi Brink, founder and director of San Diego's Lions Tigers and Bears, an exotic animal sanctuary, led the rescue and multi-state relocation for a total of nine bears from private owners in Ohio.

She was happy to hear that the sanctuary in Spearfish could take five of the bears, and she hopes to see the bears enjoying nature for the first time.

"They get to live out their lives and finally get to play on the grass and swim and run," Brink said. "With logs to scratch and play on and they get to live their life with dignity. They get to be a bear."

Brink said the bears were relinquished ahead of a new Ohio law that strictly regulates the ownership and housing of dangerous wild animals set to go into effect this fall. The law was drafted after the Zanesville tragedy in which dozens of exotic animals escaped in 2011 after their owner set them free before committing suicide. 

Brink said she hopes to see a federal ban on large cat ownership as well as a ban on owning bears.

In South Dakota, people can own just about any type of animal including tigers, lions and bears as long as they have the proper permits from the USDA.

Brink began her three-week rescue journey on June 27, picking up the bears from three locations in Ohio, administering medical treatment, and beginning the process of transporting them to Spearfish and other reputable sanctuaries. 

Besides the five bears coming to Spearfish, two will go to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenseburg, Colo. One bear will reside at the San Antonio Wildlife Sanctuary in Kendalia ,Texas, and one bear will make the cross-country trip with Brink to Lions Tigers and Bears in Alpine, Calif.

Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary sits on about 200 acres with large enclosures that house about 300 animals of 40 different species, including tigers, leopards, bears, African lions, foxes, mountain lions, coyotes, lynx, an ocelot, a caracal, and some domestic animals, according to its website.

The non-profit organization currently houses five black bears and four European brown bears.

Contact Jennifer Naylor Gesick at 394-8415 or jennifer.naylorgesick@rapidcityjournal.com.

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