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Frank Gray

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In March 2012, Jeff Watson lets Gov. Mitch Daniels hold a bear cub he travels the country with.

Bear trainer is on TV, but is this a good thing?

About a year and a half ago, a couple of animal lovers got into something of a war of words over the result of what some might view as a harmless display at an outdoor sports show at the Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne.

Jeff Watson, a bear trainer from southern Indiana, had set up a booth at the show where people could see bear cubs up close and, for $10, get their picture taken holding one of the cubs.

Watson has been raising bears for 25 years now, and they have been used in movies, advertising and wildlife photographic shoots, and pictures of his bears have appeared on the cover of major magazines.

The $10 he got from the photos, Watson said, would go to cover expenses such as feed for the bears.

But Lori Gagen, executive director of the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary, didn’t like what she saw. Watson’s display served no purpose, she said. It wasn’t educational. All it did was put the idea in people’s heads that getting a bear cub as a pet would be fun.

She also said she didn’t get what she considered adequate answers about where Watson got the cubs and what would happen to them.

Watson told us at the time that he had gotten them from a place in Ohio and planned to raise and train two himself and give the other two to an animal park in Washington state, but that the Washington deal had fallen through.

It’s easy to see Gagen’s point of view. Black Pine is full of lions and tigers and other animals that don’t just make lousy pets. They don’t make pets at all. That’s why they end up at her sanctuary. People who are determined to have a more exotic pet than anyone else eventually realize their mistake, and she’s one of the few people they have to turn to.

Watson, though, doesn’t consider himself a misguided pet owner. He has a quarter century of experience raising and training bears and is licensed to use them commercially, just like Black Pine is licensed and Siegfried and Roy were licensed.

Now, word has come that Watson and his bears are going to be part of a cable TV show featuring characters in southern Indiana. The show will also feature a car-parts yard operator, a garbage man and someone described as a dealmaker – all bearded Hoosiers living in the same vicinity west of Bloomington. Gagen pointed out to us a news article about the upcoming show.

Gagen’s reaction was about the same as her reaction to Watson’s display at the Coliseum last year. He’s exploiting the animals, Gagen said in an email. She called the show despicable.

Watson didn’t return a message we left for him, but he’s never made a secret of the fact that his bears are used in a variety of different ways. The TV show strikes me as just a different venue for his bears. One wonders, though, what kind of impression the show, which is supposed to be humorous, will leave on the rest of the world about Hoosiers.

We don’t all run car-parts yards shirtless or own bears.

Perhaps in the future when we tell people we’re from Indiana, we should remember to add we live up north – and east.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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