Williams may be a great place to reminisce about the Route 66 era or catch the train for the Grand Canyon, but that’s not the only family thing to see and do. They just opened on May 22, 2010, and everybody loves Bearizona!
I’ve visited a number of animal parks, but this is the first time that I AM the zoo, instead of just going THROUGH the zoo! And I love that concept! We choose to take the ”Spin It” tour, but we could have chosen the “Stroll It” or the “Soar It” visit just as well. I like that we are the ones in the cage (car), and the animals roam “free.” That’s what’s so distinctive.
They call the park “Bearizona,” but bears are only part of the family of animals that call it home. The first group to greet us near the entrance are Dall Sheep, and they give us a good look-over; almost like they’ve been hired as the welcoming committee.
Bearizona works hard at making sure their animals enjoy a natural habitat that looks and feels as close to their natural environment as possible. “Spin It” visitors drive through those spaces and observe how black bear, wolves, big horn sheep, bison, white bison and wild burros function in the wild. High fences are unobtrusive, see-through and all but hidden by vines and bushes, so individual terrains seem large and natural.
We’re supposed to keep our windows rolled up, but when the animals are a distance away, we do roll one down. In the wolf and bear areas, additional signs warn us to keep windows rolled up and move forward” if one should approach our vehicle. They don’t, and we get a good view and clear camera shots. We pull our truck to the side of the trail and allow others to go around us, and spend some time watching two bear cubs sparring, rolling and play-fighting. They’re adorable. If my younger grandkids were here, they’d probably want to take one home.
Guest Services Director Bob Hurlbut graciously takes an hour out of his busy day to sit down and talk with me while Larry does the “Stroll It” tour. He tells me that Sean Casey, CEO of Bearizona, grew up on his father’s well known ranch in the South Dakota Black Hills. They built a similar premise there and called it Bear Country, “so he knows an awful lot about how to run this kind of park.”
“We provide a fun and healthy and natural environment for both animals and guests to enjoy…we try to make every opportunity for guests to see interesting things…like feeding at different times and in different places, just like in the wild. They wouldn’t eat at the same time and place there either. That keeps the animals interested.”
I ask him why they chose black bears.
“Black bears are not predators, they’re foragers. Grizzlies are predators and solitary. Black bears eat leaves and berries and form social groups, so they get along well together. Most of the time they ignore each other, but they do form friendships. Most importantly, there is no alpha.”
“This looks like a great job,” I mention. “Were you a zoo keeper or biologist before you came here?”
Bob laughs and shakes his head. “Oh no,” he says, “believe it or not, I was a lawyer, and I just needed a change. I knew Sean, and he knew I was looking for something else, so he asked me to come to Arizona and be his “ambassador” here at Bearizona. I had intended to just give it a try, but I’ve come to love it here. Every day is different…I’ve learned so much, and it’s just a great place to work…most of these bears are rescues, so I feel like it’s very worthwhile work.”
“When is your busiest time, during spring when the babies are being born?”
“Yes, that is a busy time, but we’re open every day except Christmas. Most people don’t think about it, but in the winter is when a lot of our animals become most active. They love it when it’s cold. Whatever the animals do during a particular season in the wild, that’s what our guests see them do here.”
I’m surprised. “What about the bears. I assumed they’d all be hibernating in the winter.”
He nods. “Even the bears come out. Our visitors are fewer in the winter, of course, and the bears do sleep a lot, but they also come out and play. There’s still lots to see. This area can get a surprising amount of snow, but if Interstate 40 is open, so are we! These animals do special things during every season…We even had one of our 18 year old “senior” bears give birth this spring.”
Bob makes his job sound so interesting I check my watch when Larry returns from his stroll. I’m surprised to find more than an hour has passed. He shows us the pictures he took of the smaller animals. They, too, are in areas that mimic their natural habitat.
“You missed a great raptor show,” he grins. “This big owl really startled me, he flew from the back toward the stage, right over our heads! They do amazing things with them…sorry, that was the last show of the day.”
Unlike other summer attractions where bathing in a vat of sunblock is good preparation, Bearizona nestles among tall pines, and a good bit of the walk follows shade. During the school year, the park accommodates busloads of school children, and offers them and their chaperones special admission prices. Seniors get a discount, and all visitors can choose to drive their own vehicle or ride a Bearizona bus to tour the wild areas. A wheelchair can access most walking areas that we saw, and there are plenty of benches for resting. They hold special events throughout the year, so check their calendar of events at www.bearizona.com.