It was supposed to be a fun day out. But when visitors to a roadside zoo saw the decrepit conditions in which one bear was living, their hearts broke. Yes, the once majestic animal was so overweight that she could hardly move in her tiny, concrete cage.
For the past decade, Lily the Asiatic black bear had called this barbaric prison home. The makeshift cage in which she lived was simply a corn crib. Indeed, these large, fenced off containers are designed to store food for livestock, not to house beautiful beasts like Lily.
The bear was born at the Natural Bridge Zoo near Roanoke, Virginia. However, this zoo was known for its mistreatment of animals. In fact, animal rights activists had widely criticized the facility. So little Lily no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when she was transferred to another zoo.
But little did the bear know that her new home wouldn’t be much better. After all, at the Deer Haven Mini Zoo in Maryland, all Lily found was the cold, hard floor of her corn crib.
Like other roadside zoos, Deer Haven featured a menagerie of animals for passing motorists to stop and see. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums rarely if ever accredits such zoos. Therefore, the facilities have no obligation to provide a high standard of care for their exhibits.
As a result, roadside zoos often notoriously fail to provide adequate food, shelter or veterinary care for their animals. Indeed, creatures are often crammed into tiny, dirty cages that don’t even try to replicate their natural habitats.
Sadly for Lily, Deer Haven didn’t prove an exception. In her makeshift enclosure, Lily barely had space to take more than a few steps in any direction. In the wild, though, she would have explored her environment, climbed trees and burned off energy foraging for foods like fruit and nuts.
Not surprisingly, then, Lily quickly began to gain weight. “She was morbidly obese,” Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA, told The Dodo in January 2017. “She could take no more than a few steps in either direction — she was so obese that her stomach dragged on the floor of where she was kept.”
In addition, it seemed that Lily’s enclosure was rarely cleaned; the bear was surrounded by her own urine and feces. “She couldn’t lie down without soiling herself,” Peet told The Dodo.
Years passed, Deer Haven visitors came and went, and no one seemed to notice Lily’s plight. However, as the bear’s health began to deteriorate further, people did begin to worry. “Concerned citizens documented her conditions on several occasions,” Peet said. “We knew we had to help her. She was in desperate need of getting out of that place.”
As concern for Lily mounted, so did public pressure on Deer Haven. Indeed, the so-called “zoo” was bombarded with complaints from concerned animal rights activists. Before long, the facility’s owner had little choice but to let Lily go.
So in November 2016, a team of rescuers from PETA and The Wild Animal Sanctuary combined forces to transport Lily to her new home. After 12 years of solitary confinement, the beautiful bear was finally free.
On November 4, 2016, Lily arrived at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. First, though, she would stay in the sanctuary’s small enclosure to get used to her new environment without being overwhelmed.
“She settled in really well – she didn’t seem too upset by the move or anything else,” Pat Craig, founder of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, told The Dodo. Lily progressed so well, in fact, that soon she was able to interact with the two bears that she’d be sharing her larger enclosure with.
As the winter dragged on, Lily was able to do something that had been denied to her during her years at Deer Haven: hibernate. “They had a metal tube that she lived in – that was her den – and [her owner] said she stayed up all winter because it wasn’t an adequate den,” Craig revealed to The Dodo.
The fact that Lily was hibernating was good news all round. In fact, Craig said he’d seen just one winter’s sleep have an amazing impact on other bears’ health in the past. It was also thought that it would help Lily lose weight, as her body used up excess fat during the hibernation period.
“[She was fed a] heavy diet of grains,” Craig told The Dodo. “And then not being able to hibernate and do the normal cycle of weight loss, she just kept getting fatter and fatter every year. That’s what that body fat theoretically is for. So I hope she will come out a lot thinner,” he added.
So it’s hoped when Lily’s winter slumber’s over she’ll be a brand new bear. Plus, she’ll finally be free to explore her wider environment, be around other bears and live on natural terrain. After all, her new home boasts hundreds of acres in which to roam and natural pools where she’ll be able to swim for the very first time.
But, while Lily did get her happy ending, other animals at roadside zoos across the country still suffer – including those at Deer Haven Mini Zoo. “The owners of the Deer Haven Mini Zoo have no knowledge or expertise relating to wild or exotic animals at all. That’s why we saw this morbidly obese bear and other animals who are in desperate need of being retired to reputable sanctuaries,” Peet said to The Dodo.
Lily is the 57th bear PETA has rescued from roadside zoos in the last four years. Sadly, she probably won’t be the last. In order to help these desperate animals, the advocacy group advises people not to visit these “cruel tourist traps.” After all, animals belong in the wild, not on the side of the highway.