With the shipment of six captive bears to Colorado this week, state wildlife officials say they’ve all but stopped the cruel practice of bear baying in South Carolina – a mountain tradition that is at the center of a criminal investigation.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources hauled the six bears to a 720-acre wildlife preserve near Denver after their owners turned over the animals Monday.
The black bears are believed to be the last ones in South Carolina that have been used at baying events. At these secretive events, people watch dogs harass and attack captive bears to train the canines for hunting season. In some cases, bears have been defanged and their claws dulled so they can’t fight back, wildlife officials say.
“This pretty much will effectively take bear baying off the table,’’ DNR spokesman Robert McCullough said. “There won’t be anybody left with a bear that is usable for baying.’’
Baying events remain legal in South Carolina, unlike other states, but in the past 10 years, the state has banned possession of captive bears by private citizens. Those who already had captive bears were allowed to keep them. But wildlife officials knew the animals would eventually die off or no longer be used for baying, which would eventually stop the practice.
McCullough said he knows of two other privately owned bears in the Upstate, but the agency is confident the animals won’t be used for baying. A handful of other bears are in zoos and such places, he said. Baying is a long-used way of training dogs in the South Carolina mountains, where the state has a limited bear-hunting season in late October. Baying supporters say the events are not cruel.
Three of the bears sent to Colorado came from a Greenville County man who pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of mistreating animals. Giving up the bears was part of a plea agreement. The other three animals came from a Spartanburg County man who has been under scrutiny by the DNR, officials said. McCullough declined to name the man.
The DNR’s investigation, so far, has resulted in the arrest of a dozen people on various bear-hunting and cruelty charges. The probe has been going on for four years.
The six black bears given up by their owners went to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., the DNR said in a news release Friday. The animals range in age from 7 to 23 years old.
“These bears will be as close to living in the wild as possible,” the agency’s release said, quoting Pat Craig, director of the Colorado sanctuary.
“We have them in small enclosures now, but in a few days they will be released into a 10-acre habitat that is very much a natural environment, where bears could even hibernate during the winter.”
The Wild Animal Sanctuary has some 300 large animals in its care.