Inside a ‘drive-thru wildlife park’

In eastern Idaho, Bear World takes the wild out of bears.


Matt Martens is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He writes and likes to hunt in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

For $16.96 a person, you can see bears — guaranteed furry stimulation. It’s called Yellowstone Bear World, a “drive-thru wildlife park” in eastern Idaho that’s crammed with over 40 black bears and grizzlies. There are also elk, mountain goats, whitetails, mule deer, wolves, moose and bison, all living in guarded enclosures on just over an acre of land.

If that sounds too small for that many animals, you’re right.

There is also a petting zoo, roller coaster, gift shop, pumpkin patch, hay-bale maze and spud-chucking course. At Bear World, you can lick an ice cream cone while a pot-bellied pig licks your palm. But naturally, the main event is the bears.

I’m a hunter and I’ve seen lots of bears in the wild, but my family hasn’t. And so one day I took my wife, three daughters and in-laws to this place of enclosed wildlife. There are two ways to see the bears. You can pay for a vehicle pass, and you and your family sit in the same car you came in to cruise the winding road through the park. You are instructed to go slow and keep your windows up. Or, for a couple of Benjamin Franklins, you can ride in the back of a tall, open-cab bus with strangers from all over the world.

An enthusiastic guide barks instructions over a loudspeaker as you set off. Every customer is given a pan of fresh bread and bagels so they can feed the bears.

I’ll admit it was somewhat exhilarating at first to toss chunks of bread to omnivores only feet from my fingers. But the feeling faded as the animals below us wandered around. I tried to put on my happy face. After all, this trip was for my family. There was even a special section where you could bottle-feed bear cubs. What else could a kid need?

That was exactly the problem. My children don’t need to feed bears. Bears are wild creatures fully adapted to feed themselves — every once in a while, in fact, they even eat people. Bears are bears, remember?

But these caged creatures seemed like fat, furry zombies. Some had to be yelled at by our guide, who called herself a curator. Her problem: The bears didn’t want to move because they were already gorged with food thrown from the bus that preceded ours by just 20 minutes. She tried particularly hard to stir a large sow with a beautiful brown cape, attempting to lure her from her bed by saying, “Here, pretty girl, here, pretty girl, come get your breakfast.”

A bear behind a fence in Yellowstone Bear World looks out.

A man beside me toting a camera the size of a NASA telescope was entranced, murmuring, “They’re so furry” and “They don’t look scary at all.” But I was heartbroken. The wild had been taken from these bears. It was gutting to see these bears stumble to the edge of the road just to grab handouts from people like me.

I remember one large boar sitting motionless on his rear, his legs sticking straight out, paws tucked between his knees. He looked like an over-bundled child at the bottom of a ski lift who’d just seen his snowboard slide down the mountain. This bear made me feel queasy. He was not acting like a bear. He seemed depressed.

Living a caged life always on display, begging for junk food, is not what these animals were born to do. I’m a hunter. I’ve killed and eaten bears, an act some would say I should be tortured for committing. But what I saw at Bear World was a fate much crueler than death by arrow or bullet. I saw bears that had become “institutionalized,” as actor Morgan Freeman puts it in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The film is about freedom, if you haven’t seen it — something these bears will never know.

Yellowstone Bear World no doubt educates. It shows people wild animals they probably will never see in the wild. Many bears that live there were born in captivity or are “problem bears,” meaning they’ve been trapped and relocated after becoming habituated to humans. I can understand that, but it sure as hell didn’t feel right watching a bear named Teton posing for the tourists, crumbs trickling down his chest, an unmistakable glint of shame in his eyes.

Bears are supposed to be untamed. They’re supposed to be a threat to humanity. They’re supposed to be hungry. But an overfed bear sitting on his rump in the middle of a road isn’t hungry anymore. He is full of us, and he is ashamed. Me, too.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization.
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • WINTER WILDLANDS ALLIANCE POSITION ANNOUNCEMENT: EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • 20mi N of Steamboat Springs, majestic views, aspen forest, year-round access, yurt, septic, solar electric, seasonal ponds, no covenants, bordering National Forest. Ag status. $449K....
  • Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions: Communications & Development Manager/Director (remote work possible) and a Deputy Director...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details:
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.

Узнайте про популярный веб портал на тематику