Black bears find refuge at Safe Haven

Black bears find refuge at Safe Haven

Black bears find refuge at Safe Haven

In the early days of December 2017, Jenn Malzahn, 22, tossed some hot dogs into an enclosure. That’s the last time she saw Safe Haven’s American Black Bears. Now, Ben and Teddy sleep deeply.

“We’d been increasing their food intake to help them store up fat for hibernation,” explained the intern.

The bears will leave their dens in late February or early March, depending on the weather.

They’ll wake to the sounds of Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, in Imlay, Nev. Their ears will prick up when Mona roars.

The African Lioness’s rumble echoes through the 160-acre compound. “She’s either roaring, eating or sleeping,” said Malzahn. Camera shy, Mona started life as a roadside attraction in a Colorado petting zoo.

In 2000, Lynda Sugasa launched a wildlife rehab center in Illinois. Six years later, Safe Haven moved to Imlay. They provide permanent placement for animals in need. Ben and Teddy’s history placed them at the top of the list.

An Ohio man bought them as cubs, most likely from the black market.

Teddy, the larger of the two at 400-450 pounds, lived the life of a novelty pet.

“Kids played with him, which is frightening,” said Malzahn. “Everyone’s heard about momma bears protecting their cubs. But statistically, it’s males that attack.”

Teddy’s life was an accident waiting to happen. Ben’s life sounds like a horror movie. He weighs 350-380 pounds, smallish for a Black Bear — so his owner used him as bait, to lure other bears into fighting.

“You have to train the animals to fight. It’s not normal behavior that will arise just by putting them in the same space,” said Malzahn.

Ben’s owner rendered him almost defenseless. Declawed, Ben could still bite.

“But when you have a 450-pound bear clawing at you it’s difficult to fight back with just your mouth,” said Malzahn. “He had a hard life.”

After several years, Ben and Teddy’s lives changed because of a tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio.

People reported ongoing problems with the Muskingum County Animal Farm. Exotic animals lived in filth with scarce food and water, they said.

On a mid-October evening in 2011, the zoo owner snapped.

Terry Thompson, 61, threw open dozens of pens. Hungry tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, monkeys, baboons, mountain lions, lions and lionesses fled into the countryside.

Out of concern for public safety, law enforcement hunted them down. They shot and killed 49 animals with their pistols.

Later, the police found Thompson, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

“As a result of the incident, the state tightened private exotic ownership regulations,” said Sugasa.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) gave Ben and Teddy’s owner one year to correct his deficiencies, including inadequate and unsafe housing. He failed to comply.

In 2015, ODA seized the bears and placed them with Safe Haven. But the owner took the case to the Ohio Supreme Court. He wanted Ben and Teddy back.

“According to a contractual agreement with ODA, we weren’t permitted to post any photos on our social media site until the court decided the case,” said Sugasa.

Safe Haven nurtured a 1,000-pound secret.

But on Saturday, their Facebook page featured a video of Ben and Teddy splashing in their 31x50-foot swimming pool. The interns shot the footage in August after they finished building the enclosure.

The Ohio Supreme Court just awarded legal ownership of Ben and Teddy to Safe Haven.

“We are all thrilled by the good news,” said Malzahn.

Last spring Malzahn graduated from the University of Michigan with a dual degree in Evolutionary Anthropology and Sociology.

After she completes her 6-month internship at Safe Haven, she hopes to attend graduate school.

On Wednesday, Malzahn conducted a training session with Clarence, a white Bengal tiger. She explained that, in the wild, his coloration occurs only in only about 2 percent of births.

Because of the inbreeding that produced his silvery coat, Clarence’s eyes cross severely. Malzahn estimated that he gets by with about 20 percent of his vision.

Sensitive skin also presents issues. The pads of Clarence’s paws crack. Debris can lodge in the fissures.

Malzahn held a chicken thigh with a pair of tongs. She lured Clarence into a standing position to examine his front paws. The 400-pound tiger cracked the bone and licked his face like a huge kitten.

The Sanctuary receives no state or federal funds. For more information visit

Fast facts about American Black Bears:

(adapted from National Geographic for Kids)

1. American black bears live in Canada, Mexico and North America.

2. They mostly eat grasses, herbs and fruit but will sometimes eat other foods, including fish.

3. Black bears spend winter dormant in their dens, feeding on body fat they've built up over the summer and autumn.