Animal rights group PETA asks Idaho to investigate ‘deceptive’ Yellowstone Bear World practices - East Idaho News

Animal rights group PETA asks Idaho to investigate ‘deceptive’ Yellowstone Bear World practices

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Editor’s Note: also reached out to Yellowstone Bear World about PETA’s complaint but did not receive a response.

MADISON COUNTY (Idaho Statesman) — An often-controversial animal rights group has asked Idaho’s attorney general to investigate a wildlife park’s business claims, which the activist group said misled the public into believing the park is a rescue operation.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, filed the consumer protection complaint about Yellowstone Bear World earlier this month, urging the attorney general’s office to investigate alleged insinuations from the park and its staff that Yellowstone Bear World is a sanctuary or nonprofit. The animal rights group also alleged Bear World made misleading claims about keeping bears on its property for life and falsely advertised the size of its property.

Bear World is a drive-through wildlife park in eastern Idaho that is home to numerous animal species, including its namesake black and grizzly bears. The park has faced intense scrutiny over its animal care, bear breeding and cub bottle-feeding practices, particularly after the viral 2020 “Tiger King” documentary drew attention to roadside animal exhibitors.

Complaints like PETA’s do not require the attorney general’s office to investigate. However, if the agency decides to pursue the claims and finds Bear World in violation of consumer protection laws, it could face fines for damages to customers, as well as an additional $5,000 fine for each violation.

PETA officials told the Idaho Statesman the attorney general’s office has confirmed receipt of the complaint. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint. The office has previously told the Statesman it cannot comment on potential investigations.

Yellowstone Bear World president and co-owner Courtney Ferguson did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

PETA claims Bear World misled customers

PETA’s complaint claims that Bear World has violated the Idaho Consumer Protection Act by knowingly providing incorrect information to customers. Part of the complaint states that Yellowstone Bear World and its employees have, on numerous occasions, made statements that portray the park as a sanctuary rather than the for-profit exhibit that it is.

PETA said a Yellowstone Bear World profile on Meridian-based marketing platform Liiingo labels the park a “wildlife sanctuary” and “bear sanctuary.” PETA also included quotes from Ferguson, who it said has repeatedly referred to Bear World’s cub bottle-feeding program as a “fundraiser.” The park charges $75 per person to pet and feed the cubs, according to the Bear World website.

PETA’s complaint said Ferguson last year told attendees at a promotional event in Ammon, Idaho, that “all the money that we raise at the fundraiser there all goes back to the educational programs, goes back to the care of the animals there at Yellowstone Bear World.”

He made similar statements to a news anchor at a Sportsmen’s Expo in Salt Lake City in 2022, according to the complaint.

“An animal sanctuary is a facility that provides safe haven to animals in need,” PETA wrote in its complaint. “A business that breeds animals to exploit them for commercial exhibition and then sell them to other facilities is the exact opposite of a sanctuary.”

PETA said “fundraisers” are widely understood to be directed toward charities or causes.

The animal rights group also said Bear World has misled customers about where its bears live out their days. PETA included numerous screenshots from social media of Bear World’s replies to tell commenters that cubs will spend their lives at its facility. Bear World has made the same claims to media.

PETA said U.S. Department of Agriculture records showed that’s not true. The records, included as exhibits in the complaint, showed Bear World has transferred more than 100 bears to other facilities since 2012. Many of those bears have been sent to Woody’s Menagerie in Illinois, where owner Gregg Woody has illegally purchased animals without a USDA license and been investigated for poor animal care. PETA said Woody has also sent bears and other animals to slaughterhouses.

The complaint pointed to two instances when it said it was clear Bear World was knowingly lying to the public about keeping bears on-site. In one, a commenter asked whether a bear named Tucker was still at the facility. Bear World responded and said he was, despite USDA records that showed a bear named Tucker had been sold to Woody six years earlier. In the other case, a Facebook user commented on a 2020 photo of three bears playing in the snow and asked whether they were the previous year’s cubs.

“Yep!” Bear World responded. “These are the 2019 cubs, but in a few weeks it will be their birthday and they’ll be yearlings! Then they’ll move down to the yearling enclosure in the main area of our park so they have lots of room to run and play as they grow.”

PETA said Bear World had posted the same photograph on social media in 2018, and couldn’t have a photo depicting three of the 2019 cubs anyway because all but two of them were sold to Woody.

Finally, PETA’s complaint said Bear World has advertised its park as a 120-acre drive-through facility when parcel records from Madison County show the publicly accessible area is less than half that size. The entire parcel, including inaccessible areas, is 112 acres, according to public property records.

PETA has history of clashes with Bear World

The complaint isn’t PETA’s first time confronting Yellowstone Bear World. In the past, protesters from the group have picketed its Baby Animal Days event, and in 2022, a PETA investigator worked at Bear World and claimed they witnessed mistreatment of cubs, including one with a fractured leg that was denied prescribed painkillers.

PETA said its investigation was directly responsible for an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that led to three workplace safety violations for Bear World and $9,000 in fines.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game also cited Bear World in recent years over documentation of animal births and deaths. Fish and Game officials told the Idaho Falls Post-Register they had worked with Bear World to correct violations of state regulations against allowing the public to feed captive animals. Documents showed in 2022 Bear World also clashed with the state agency when it insisted it be allowed to operate under terms and conditions established in 2001 that no longer complied with Fish and Game regulations.

RELATED | Yellowstone Bear World, fined by OSHA, lobbies for bill to nix oversight of wildlife parks

Last year, Bear World lobbied for a bill that would remove it and other private zoos and drive-through animal parks from state oversight, relying only on USDA regulations, which are less stringent than Fish and Game’s. The bill was signed into law.

RELATED | Governor signs bill reducing state regulation of Bear World

Charlotte Cunnington, a lobbyist for Yellowstone Bear World, told the Senate Resources and Environment Committee the bill was a direct result of PETA’s 2022 undercover operation.

Cunnington said PETA and other animal rights activists “utilize the agency complaint process to try to shut businesses like ours down, and we know that they will not stop.”

“This bill will allow Yellowstone Bear World to run its business without constantly looking over its shoulder,” Cunnington told lawmakers.