A handful of demonstrators were on scene at the American West Heritage Center on Thursday to protest Baby Animal Days and Yellowstone Bear World after the event garnered attention from the Utah Animal Rights Coalition and PETA.
Heritage Center management seemed to give a sigh of relief when the protests, and the event, went off without a hitch after receiving three weeks’ worth of email correspondence — nearly 60,000 emails by PETA’s count — from all over the United States.
“At first, it was a little bit unnerving for our staff,” said Mic Bowen, the executive director of the Heritage Center, explaining many of the staff members are volunteers, “but after a while we realized … it’s OK, this is just kind of the nature of these kinds of campaigns.”
Apart from the primary goal of providing people a respite from the isolation of 2020, Bowen said part of the mission this year was to handle the protests “in the right way” and allowing for the “incredibly important” expression of free speech.
“Let’s make sure that they feel safe,” Bowen said, who provided food, drinks and a designated protest spot on the Heritage Center’s grounds. “We may not see eye-to-eye, but we wanted to have a unifying experience, not a divisive experience. And I think, for the most part, it happened that way.”
Jeremy Beckham, the executive director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, who traveled from the Wasatch Front for the protest, said the event was considered by the protesters to be “nothing short of animal abuse.”
“They’re taking baby cubs shortly after they’re born, tearing them away from their mothers, so that people can pay to take selfies,” Beckham said. “Just because some people want to pay for some selfies and treat these animals like photo props, we’re inflicting extreme emotional trauma on both these cubs and the mothers.”
Beckham said he would like to see the communities in Cache Valley enact a ban on exotic animal interactions and performances, similar to those in Salt Lake County, and encouraged locals to contact their elected officials. Beckham, who’s been involved with animal rights advocacy for nearly 20 years, said concern for animal welfare isn’t partisan but is reflective of a lack of contemplation about what goes on “behind the scenes.”
“You don’t actually see the cub being ripped away from the mom — you don’t even see the mom at all,” Beckham said. “They just think this is something that makes their kid smile, and so they’re going to come down here and pay because it makes their kid happy, and on some level I can’t blame that.”
“I respect their opinion, I can understand,” Bowen said. “We, obviously, feel differently.”
Bowen said having tangible experiences with animals has educational and emotional benefits for the children who participate. For Bowen, being able to interact with animals is a part of the “hands-on” learning experience necessary to understand “what happens on our agricultural properties in the country.”
“That’s extremely educational,” Bowen said. “And it dispels a lot of issues with animals, especially farm animals, when you educate — so we feel it’s an educational tool and it’s a powerful one.”
Alex Baldwin said his interest in attending the protest largely had to do with Yellowstone Bear World.
Raised in the area of Idaho Falls, Baldwin said he was introduced to Bear World in the sixth grade and believed it was “above board.” But in 2018, after a trip with his nephews, Baldwin said he began personally investigating and researching Bear World and its animal handling practices.
“It was kind of a paradigm shift,” Baldwin said. “The image I’d had of Bear World, and what I saw just a couple years ago just blew my mind.”
For Baldwin, events like Baby Animal Days serve in “legitimizing” an organization that isn’t concerned with conservation or education as much as it is about making money as a privately owned “theme park.”
“It gives a false credibility that Bear World doesn’t deserve,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said he had no affiliation with any specific animal rights organization, though he did notify PETA and the Heritage Center about his Bear World concerns. With a background in “spinning products” as a copywriter and formerly teaching rhetoric, Baldwin said he’s uniquely clued up to Bear World’s marketing messages.
“I recognize what Bear World does,” Baldwin said. “I feel like they’re bastardizing the word ‘Yellowstone,’ which pisses me right off.”
Bowen said as it currently stands, there was no indication that the Heritage Center would end their partnership with Bear World. Bowen said Bear World had been involved in Baby Animal Days for over a decade, staff had visited their facilities multiple times, and up-to-date USDA licenses ensure Bear World was taking proper care of their animals.
“Our partnership has been extremely strong,” Bowen said. “We have a deep respect for them; their care for their animals is exceptional.”
However, Baldwin said he hoped the Heritage Center would reevaluate their ties. Baldwin said he didn’t want to be an adversary to Bear World — or the Heritage Center, for that matter — but he hoped the Idaho-based organization would substitute the perception of “do-goodery” with transparency.
“I don’t want to bring anybody down or drag anyone through the mud,” Baldwin said. “I just care about transparency and honesty; right now, Bear World is that conflict.”
One counterprotester, reportedly from Preston, did arrive for a matter of minutes with a sign that read, “these bears are getting better treatment than all Bidens (sic) caged immigrants.”