Animal rights group protests treatment of Baylor's bears

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Animal rights group protests treatment of Baylor mascots

By BRIAN GAAR, Waco Tribune Herald

8/13/02

Two members of a Chicago-area animal rights group decried the treatment of Baylor University's two mascots, broadcasting footage of the bears on large screens in downtown Waco Friday night.

They claim the bears are being mistreated in the on-campus "bear pit," a charge that school officials vehemently deny.

Their main evidence was hours of footage they videotaped and showed from a retrofitted truck parked near Heritage Square. Across the truck's top scrolled an electronic banner — "Stop Baylor's tradition of cruelty."

Steve Hindi, the founder of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), said the bears are being caged in an unnatural environment and show signs of psychosis as a result.

"On a more personal note, you'd think that they would show great respect for their symbol," he said. "But on a more humane level, to see a 6-month-old animal crying out and exhibiting that kind of neurotic behavior and an (18-month-old) basically doing the same thing is just, at Baylor University, is something that we felt should be dealt with."

The two bears are kept in a concrete habitat that lacks adequate climbing material, and companionship between the two is restricted, Hindi said.

The bears are also at the mercy of the hot summer weather with no air conditioned dens, said Colleen Gardner, a group member and Salt Lake City resident.

"There really is no escape from the heat here," Gardner said.

The group has protested rodeos, circuses and bullfighting in the past as being unnecessarily cruel.

Baylor officials deny that the animals are suffering and say they're in compliance with the law.

Larry Brumley, Baylor's associate vice president for external relations, called the group "fanatical" and said Baylor meets all the requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"If they think that's still cruel, then that's their opinion and they're entitled to it," Brumley said.

The flap started when Gardner's son, Jeremy Beckham, visited campus last month for a debate tournament. Upset at what he believed to be mistreatment, Beckham filmed hours of footage of the bears. He wrote a letter to the Tribune-Herald , calling for Baylor to "end this outdated, cruel and unnecessary charade and switch to humane choices like other college campuses have already done."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was also contacted, made an inspection and found nothing wrong, Brumley said.

Hallie Pickhardt, a spokeswoman for the USDA's animal care division in Maryland, said officials conducted a routine, unannounced inspection of Baylor's bear facility in April.

"They were in full compliance," she said.

Baylor is designated as a Class C specialty zoo and is licensed to hold up to three bears. Currently, it houses 6-month-old Lady and 18-month-old Joy, both North American Black Bears. The Baylor Chamber of Commerce student group is responsible for the bears' care.

"I completely disagree that we do anything that mistreats our mascot," said Adam Ylitalo, a Baylor senior who's the designated trainer for Lady.

Brumley said he met with Beckham, along with Ylitalo, and an adviser to Baylor's Chamber of Commerce, and the three tried to answer his questions.

"I think we've done all we do to satisfy those folks," Brumley said. "They don't like the fact that we have a bear. That's certainly their prerogative. We've answered their questions."

Hindi and Gardner said they have tried to meet with the Baylor administration this week, to no avail. Hindi said he plans to return if the situation doesn't change.

"We're just trying to quietly resolve this matter, but frankly, it looks like that's not going to work," Hindi said.

Brumley said officials don't plan to have any future meetings with the group.

"We're through with them," he said. "They cannot say that we didn't meet with them."

Of the occasional onlookers Friday night, at least one wasn't convinced that the bears are being neglected.

Sabrina Neff, a Baylor student, said the bears have regularly scheduled activities and the group's footage can be misleading.

"It's offensive to think that people might take what they see here out of context," she said.

Brian Gaar can be reached at 757-5741 or at bgaar@wacotrib.com.
 

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