At haven in Otisville, life is quite bear­able

Jim and Su­san Kowal­czik have been caring for in­jured and un­wanted an­i­mals for al­most 23 years.

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Hill

OTISVILLE >> Bear hugs are noth­ing. Jim Kowal­czik hugs bears.

Kowal­czik lies on the ground as his 1,500-pound bear buddy, Jimbo, rests a heavy paw on his waist. He feeds Jimbo a marsh­mal­low from his mouth and laughs as a big bear tongue slob­bers on his ear.

If that sounds sui­ci­dal, con­sider that Kowal­czik and his wife, Su­san, have cared for Jimbo for al­most 23 years, since the Ko­diak bear first came to the cou­ple’s Or­ange County haven for in­jured or un­wanted an­i­mals as a bot­tle-fed cub.

“He’ll play with you all day if you have the time,” Kowal­czik says af­ter a re­cent horse­play ses­sion, adding that it’s for­tu­nate the bear doesn’t throw his weight around ca­su­ally. “If he lays on you, you’ve got a prob­lem.”

Jimbo is among the 11 bears liv­ing at the cou­ple’s non­profit Or­phaned Wildlife Cen­ter in Otisville. One of them, a black bear named Frankie, was born in the wild and found his way here in 2012 af­ter be­ing hit by a car. The rest of the bears at the cen­ter were born in cap­tiv­ity, eight of them Syr­ian brown bears or mixes that came from a breed­ing pro­gram. Jimbo came from a West Coast game farm with an in­jured leg.

There are plenty of wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tors and other cen­ters that care for bears. But Kowal­czik has grabbed at­ten­tion for his hands-on ap­proach. One Face­book video of him play­ing with Jimbo has re­ceived more than 16 mil­lion views. Kowal­czik de­scribed it as if it was some­thing as nat­u­ral as pet­ting your dog. The bears are like his chil­dren, he says, and they have never in­jured him.

“There’s no false pre­tenses like there are with peo­ple and stuff,” Kowal­czik says. “What you see is what you get.”

The cou­ple has been re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing squir­rels, ducks, deer, mink and other an­i­mals to­gether since the early 1990s. The main goal is to re­lease an­i­mals, but the bears can­not be re­leased be­cause of in­juries or be­cause they are too ac­cus­tomed to cap­tiv­ity.

Bears are in 57-year-old Su­san Kowal­czik’s blood­line. Her fa­ther, Al­bert Rix, was a well-known cir­cus vet­eran from Ger­many who raised Syr­ian brown bears. Jim, 60, is a re­tired cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer.

The Kowal­cziks funded the ven­ture out of their own pock­ets un­til cre­at­ing the non­profit last year, which al­lows them to take do­na­tions. It’s still just them, plus di­rec­tor Kerry Clair, who han­dles ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties.

The videos help with ex­po­sure. But ex­perts are pretty clear: Do not get up close with bears, like Kowal­czik does.

Even with cap­tive bears, there’s a chance their in­stincts will take over, said Matt Mer­chant, se­nior wildlife bi­ol­o­gist with New York’s De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion. Plus, there are in­her­ent dan­gers of rolling around with an an­i­mal that weighs three-quar­ters of a ton.

“I don’t think peo­ple get a lot of good in­for­ma­tion or ed­u­ca­tion from that kind of be­hav­ior,” Mer­chant said. “They’d be bet­ter off watch­ing a nat­u­ral­ist show off bears in the wild, or just go­ing out and hik­ing around and see­ing them on their own.”

Sit­ting on the ground next to Jimbo, Kowal­czik shrugs at the thought of per­sonal dan­ger from his bear bud­dies.

“They’re con­tent, they’re happy. If they weren’t,” Kowal­czik says, paus­ing as Jimbo licks him. “You would know it.”

MIKE GROLL — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim Kowal­czik plays with Jimbo, a 1,500-pound Ko­diak bear, at the Or­phaned Wildlife Cen­ter in Otisville, Or­ange County, on Sept. 7.

Jim Kowal­czik gets up close and per­sonal with Jimbo at the Or­phaned Wildlife Cen­ter in Otisville.

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