|RVAS receives numerous calls every day from people wanting rescue assistance for various animals. But in the fall of 2004, Director, Joe Pundzak received a call that he could not have been prepared for. "A what?" he replied to local law enforcement. "A Black Bear?"
Citizens had voiced their concerns after driving by Ben's cage along Highway 44 in Linden back in 2003. They called local law enforcement requesting that something be done to save this bear. There were complaints of cruelty, probably because most people can't fathom a wild animal in captivity.
After a welfare check by RVAS and Dallas County Law Enforcement it was clear that the owner at the present time, Mike Woodvine, was not violating any Iowa laws. Ben, a large Black Bear, had adequate food, water and shelter. Mike claimed he rescued the two month old cub from death but it is unclear who declawed the bear, leaving it defenseless and unable to return to the wild. He asked RVAS to assist him in finding an appropriate sanctuary where Ben could safely return to his habitat.
Now finding a place for a Black Bear that can weigh between 125-500 lbs. is no easy task. You have to find place, know the right people and of course, produce the right vehicle for transport; provide adequate food, shelter and water, and provide the proper paperwork to transport a dangerous animal across state lines. Add to this ordeal, the fact that bears hibernate in the winter, and a late October rescue means that Ben would be limited on the amount of time he would have to adjust to his new environment, make new friends and settle down for a long winter's nap.
So a sense of urgency was needed. The rescue task force, coordinated by RVAS, consisted of 6 individual rescuers and 2 rescue organizations. Hundreds of telephone calls were exchanged and with careful networking, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center, (aka The Wild Animal Sanctuary) in Keensburg, Colorado stepped forward and offered to take Ben, all expenses paid.
But two days before transport was to begin, Mike Woodvine "pulled the plug" on the rescue operation. Mike had begun "stalling" the rescue process closer to the pick up date, claiming he should be reimbursed for the expenses he had incurred for Ben. He also told one rescuer that he didn't feel anyone could care for Ben the way he could. Then he stopped returning the telephone calls and answering his door to the rescue task force. RVAS was forced to scrap the rescue, and Ben would remain, in confinement along a country road to be gawked at by astonished passers by.
On April 18, 2007 Iowa lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting the private possession of dangerous wild animals. It was signed into law by Governor Chet Culver on 5/25/07.
Senate Bill 564 regulates ownership and possession of dangerous wild animals, but does not prevent previous owners from keeping their exotic or wild animals and allows them to be "grandfathered" into the system providing they abide by the new law.
The law provides that the possessor of the animal must register it, for a fee, with the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship no later than Dec. 31, 2007. Owners must also maintain liability insurance on the animal and are strictly liable for damages or injuries resulting from the actions of their animal. The Agriculture Department has the right to seize and dispose of animals kept in violation of the bill’s provision. Violators are subject to civil penalties of no more than $2,000 for each offense.
For Mike Woodvine, this meant that there are some hefty expenses coming due to keep Ben. So on October 2nd, 2007, Mr. Woodvine made a plea to the public for help via the Des Moines Register, once again. (See the Des Moines Register's articles on Ben: Bear Needs a Savior - Again and Ben the bear finds a new home, and everybody's happy).
But RVAS challenged his "plea" for help when Mr. Woodvine implied that he had contacted numerous wildlife sanctuaries with no luck. "It's hard to believe that Mr. Woodvine ran into so many dead ends with his rescue efforts to find Ben a new home," says Linda R. Blakely, RVAS Director. "I went to the internet, and made one telephone call. Within one hour we had rescue operations started, once again, for Ben. And even stranger, the people that I spoke with hadn't talked to anyone from Iowa or even knew about a Bear in need. With two major rescue organizations in Iowa, you would think that Mr. Woodvine would have turned to one of them for assistance, especially when he ran out of choices. Apparently not."
And the American Sanctuary Association, hadn't received any requests from Iowa either, not from individuals or rescues...not before RVAS.
But Mr. Woodvine justified his refusal to let Ben go to rescue in 2004 because "he wasn't given enough time to research the rescue organization." According to this same article, "on Monday, (October 8) he'd done the research and sounded thrilled." He stated that the place he found was "awesome" and invited readers to check it out, sending them to www.wildanimalsanctuary.org.
"Whether Mr. Woodvine ever tried to contact rescue organizations or not is questionable, " says Ms. Blakely, "Oddly enough, Ben is going to the exact same rescue we had made arrangements with 3 years prior." The tragedy of it all is that Ben remained confined 3 years longer than he needed to, "Which makes me wonder if Mike Woodvine's intent was to release the bear this time or, once again, just a ploy to receive funding and attention. It's just very suspicious that he found the time this time to research the same organization that we had lined up for him 3 years ago. And he did it with a click of his mouse. It's difficult not to speculate that money was a huge factor in his decision to finally release the bear."
The number of exotic and wild animals, kept as pets is on the rise, and states are starting to crack down, putting into place laws providing some element of protection for those exotic and wild animals currently held in captivity by individuals. "The number of USDA Confiscations with The Wild Animal Sanctuary alone is quite astounding," says Ms. Blakely. "The stories are heart-wrenching to read."
On Tuesday, RVAS contacted The Wild Animal Sanctuary to verify that the rescue was still on track, and that Mr. Woodvine had received from the state, the appropriate paperwork to get Ben into rescue. Pat Craig, the sanctuary's Executive Director, confirmed that they, once again, agreed to pay all expenses, (pick up, transport and delivery of Ben to his new home.) At that time he had not received any additional funding from Mike Woodvine.
"It's frustrating to think that an individual could or would deliberately sacrifice an animals best interest for their own gain," says Ms. Blakely. "Funding for licensed non-profit animal organizations is tight enough, and we all compete for the same dollars. To have an individual exploit any animal for their own financial gain is unthinkable. I hope that Mr. Woodvine has a enough decency to pass along any funds contributed to his 'save the bear' plea and donate them to the sanctuary that accepted Ben."
Around 5:00 pm on Tuesday evening, Mr. Craig emailed RVAS to let them know that Ben was safely loaded in his cage and on his way to his new home. The word spread quickly among those rescuers who have waited for this day.
"Rescuing an animal is more than getting them off of the street," says Linda Blakely. "A 'rescue' is not complete until the animal is placed into an environment which provides the quality of life that it deserves...for a lifetime. Ben's life may have been spared at 2 months old, but he lived 5 years behind bars as a roadside curiosity for spectators. It's sad to think people are so insensitive to animals needs that they find enjoyment out of showcasing a wild animal in a cage. Isn't that what the National Geographic Channel or Animal Planet is for?"
Mike Woodvine is "bearly" a hero. The real heroes of this story are those who had the courage to speak out, the passion to set their personal needs aside for Ben, and the persistence to fight for Ben so that he could find the "right" lifetime home. RVAS and the rescuers that devoted time and energy for Ben's freedom, are all proud to have participated in Ben's story!
You can follow Ben's journey and offer your support with a "virtual adoption" at the The Wild Animal Sanctuary. Your contribution will help support the care of Ben, and many other of the wild and exotic animals in their sanctuary.
You can read both stories at the Des Moines Register under reporter Marc Hansen's column.