OK to feed the bears? New Brunswick sends mixed messages
Tourism department promotes business that feeds bears, but provincial biologists warn against it
With food in hand, George Hachey saunters among the nine wild and hungry black bears gathered in the yard for a snack.
Hachey is scattering what appears to be dog food on the ground, feeding the bears the way a farmer might feed chickens. Sometimes, the bears eat right out of his hand, pleasing the tourists watching from the safety of a nearby treehouse.
Depending on whom you ask in the New Brunswick government, what Hachey is doing at the Little, Big Bear Safari in eastern New Brunswick is either dangerous and discouraged or interesting and tourist-worthy.
The Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture seems to like the up-close bear feeding that goes on at the safari business in the Kent County community of Acadieville.
Spreads the word
"Europe is our No. 1 client," said Vivianne Goguen, co-owner of the safari with her husband, Richard. "But we have people come from all over the world."
Biologists with the Department of Energy and Resource Development condemn the feeding of black bears and say humans shouldn't get close to the animals.
Kevin Craig, a provincial biologist, said it may seem like common sense to avoid wild bears, but New Brunswick has no laws against letting them feed from your hands.
Warns of danger
"We discourage this, of course," Craig said. "The biggest danger to people in close proximity to wild animals is that they are unpredictable. They are wild."
The Goguens and Hachey, a photographer who helps out at the safari, have long experience with black bears, which come to the property in warmer months from the nearby woods.
But the Little, Big Bear Safari discourages anyone from trying to feed the animals.
"It takes years of work and lots of confidence to do what I am doing today," Richard Goguen, a former guide and outfitter, says on the safari website, where videos of the feeding are available.
Vivianne Goguen said the province's two opposing views on the feeding is "uncomfortable" for the business, but the couple appreciate the help the safari gets from the tourism department.
"They go into Europe to tourism shows and promote us free of charge," she said.
In other provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia, it is against the law to feed wild bears. And in national parks in Canada, a $2,500 fine awaits those caught feeding bears.
CBC News requested an interview with Tourism Minister John Ames, or a department official, about why New Brunswick promotes hand feeding of wild bears when other provinces outlaw it. No one was made available for an interview.
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Instead, an emailed statement from the department said: "Little Big Bear Safari meets the criteria established by the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture for placement in the tourism guide. All businesses are required to follow provincial laws and there is no evidence that this operator failed to do so.
"We understand that the Department of Energy and Resource Development does not condone feeding wild animals as a general rule, however, this is separate from whether a company is allowed to purchase a listing in the tourism guide."
The department didn't address safety concerns.
The Goguens once vowed to stop letting the bears feed from their hands but have since gone back to the practice.
"It's like their way of saying 'hi,'" Vivianne Goguen said.
"Then they eat the rest on the ground.
"It's like we always used to do that, so we do it. The bear asks for it."