Every family has its little traditions. When I was growing up, each year from the time I was 4 until I entered high school, there was a birthday trip to the Atlanta Zoo. Every August, I would invite a friend and my parents would take us on a day trip.
In retrospect, Atlanta Zoo in the 1960s was a pathetic place, full of animals in bare, concrete enclosures, alternating between restless pacing and abject boredom.
The highlight of my birthday trips after 1961 was a visit with Willie B., the gorilla who was taken as an infant from his forest home in Cameroon and for 27 years lived alone in a concrete box with only a tire swing and a television set for company.
Year after year I would gaze at this magnificent creature. Sometimes he would gaze back. Once he waved. With every visit, I became more aware of the tragic deprivation that he and the other animals endured. Finally, when I was 13, I asked for a tape recorder instead of a zoo trip.
There’s a happy ending of course. In 1988, Willie B. was moved to a habitat where he lived out the rest of his life as the silverback leader of a family. He fathered five babies. Atlanta Zoo became Zoo Atlanta and went from Parade Magazine’s list of the worst zoos in America to one of the most progressive.
I thought of Willie B. when I received this email from People for Ethical Treatment of Animals last week: “Breaking News: PETA Closes Second Set of Bear Pits: New Life for 17 Bears.” The email went on to tell of the rescue of 17 grizzly and black bears from a tourist attraction in Helen. The bears had lived in concrete pits while the public paid admission to view them from above and toss down bits of purchased food.
The pictures of the stark enclosures were grim, indeed. They were followed by images of the bears being transported to a Colorado preserve where they were released. Some of the bears, who had been born in captivity, had never walked on grass before. According to the email, the move was a collaborative effort by PETA, “The Simpsons” co-creator Sam Simon, The Wild Animal Sanctuary and the Atlanta Humane Society.
I suppose I would be more comfortable with this fortunate turn of events for the bears were it not for PETA’s self-serving promotion. The announcement of the “rescue” was prominently displayed over a “donate” button.
Since this happened practically at our back door, I decided to find out the local view on the events. The White County News reported in September that PETA had contacted the Helen City Commission, requesting its help in closing the attraction and relocating the bears. The commission, after making inquiries, surmised that there were no legal or zoning violations and they had no grounds to intervene.
Meanwhile, the bear park was in the midst of foreclosure. Rick Aiken, former director of the Northeast Georgia Humane Society, heard of the situation and contacted Rod Hickox, the owner of the attraction.
The White County News quoted Aiken as saying, “Rod wanted to make sure that the bears would go someplace they would be taken care of. A lot of people don’t understand. He could have euthanized the bears legally. He could have sold the grizzly bears into less than desirable situations. To me, he made a lot of compassionate decisions. In the end, both Rod and the bears got what they wanted. That’s something he can be proud of.”
Hmmm, that sounds more like a partnership than a rescue. I wish PETA had at least acknowledged the owner’s cooperation. Granted, it takes away a little of the drama but I think it’s important that his role in this relocation be recognized and applauded. As the paper quoted Hickox in an earlier article: “It’s a big win for the animals. ... They’ll have stuff I could never provide for them. ... I wasn’t forced into this by PETA. It was other circumstances. ... This isn’t a rescue.”
Yes, this is a win for the bears, two of whom are about to deliver cubs. I’m glad the outdated bear pits are closed. What was once viewed as a family attraction is now seen in a different light, one where animals, no matter how well-meaning their owners, are deprived and exploited.
PETA and Simon did a spectacular job in financing and coordinating the relocation. This isn’t a story with villains and heroes, but rather one with people who all loved the bears, just in different ways.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.