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Indiana exotic animal farm allows visitors to encounter bears, elephants, zebras



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Jeff “the Bear Man” Watson feeds Bob the grizzly bear a carrot Nov. 2 at Wilstem. Watson has worked with bears for around 30 years. Sam House Buy Photos

He had laid out various vegetables for them to eat.  

After a couple minutes, the 7-year-old grizzly bears lumbered out of their den and into the enclosed pasture. The group of four guests watched from behind two layers of fencing. Watson stood inside, and his girlfriend, Sherrie Anderson, stood between the two fences. 

Standing a few feet away from the bears, Watson reached his hand out and brushed the hay off their butts.

“I’ll make them photogenic for you,” Watson said to the tour group of four, joking.

Bob and Screech moved into Wilstem, their new 11-acre exotic animal farm home, two and a half weeks ago. 

Located near French Lick and Paoli, Indiana, Wilstem offers “animal encounters,” or close-up interactions with their 68 exotic animals, including elephants, giraffes, kangaroos and these grizzly bears. Guests can interact with the variety of animals, including helping bathe the elephants and pet the giraffes in these encounters, which range from $10 to $299. 

Audrey Brames feeds Jabari, a giraffe, a carrot Nov. 2 at Wilstem. Two giraffes, Bert and Jabari, live at the Wilstem Ranch. Sam House Buy Photos

Its newest encounter is with Watson’s grizzlies. Watson has had these bears for their entire life, but has had bears for 30 years.

“He’s a bear like ‘Brother Bear,’” said Sheldon Troutt of Watson. Troutt works with other animals at Wilstem.

Watson has extensive film experience with bears. He worked on an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” and on the movie “Grizzly Park” and acted as Grizzly Adams on the T.V. movie “P.T. Barnum.” He also appeared on Discovery channel reality show “Porter Ridge.” 

Watson named Bob, who is identifiable by four missing toes, based on what he thought a hillbilly would name a bear because of "Porter Ridge." Screech, who is identifiable by his large head, was named after the noise he made when he was a cub. 

Watson and his bears also just finished shooting the holiday episode of reality prank show “Impractical Jokers.”

Two years ago, Animal Planet aired a six-episode series called “Project Grizzly,” which followed Watson as he tried to return Bob and Screech to the wild. In the series, Watson realized in order to successfully make his bears “wild,” he had to use pain to make them fear humans. He didn’t want to do that, and so Bob and Screech have moved into Wilstem. 

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Now regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, Wilstem started in the 1980s as a ranch when Director of Marketing and Sales Audrey Brames’ father bought the 11 acres. Eventually, people began riding horses on the land, and Wilstem expanded to have cabins, cows, trail rides and zip lines.

Wilstem first welcomed exotic animals four years ago, when their family of elephants, Makia, Lou and Lovie, arrived. They have private owners from Florida who used to take them across the country in a semi truck to different zoo-like places throughout the year, but since 2014 have spent March through October at Wilstem. 

Since then, Wilstem bought two giraffes, Bert, 7, and Jabari, 2, from a private breeder, rescued about 20 animals from the Ringling Bros. circus and obtained a variety of other animals like zebras, bison, horses and iguanas from other private breeders and organizations.

Bert the giraffe stretches his tongue in an attempt to reach the carrot in Audrey Brames’ hand. Both giraffes are male, but Wilstem is considering adding a female. Sam House Buy Photos

The people who work with the animals, along with office staff like Brames, wear many hats.

“I do marketing but I have also cleaned the cages out,” Brames said.

Troutt calls his job description “animal lover” because he works with all the animals. He may start out his day with the kangaroos and then give trail rides in the afternoon.

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Showing off for the guests, Watson held the carrot right out of their reach until they opened their mouth, giving the guests a chance to see the bears looking “violent” before they chomped down on the carrot.

But Bob and Screech don’t seem violent. They romped around the grass, playing with each other and Watson. 

He is careful to remind guests that while Bob and Screech are calm around him, there’s a reason for the two fences, one electrically charged, between the guests and the bears. 

Only Watson goes inside alone, and Anderson typically only goes inside the cage when he is with her. When she does so, Watson watches her carefully. 

“The closer you get to them, the more you realize how smart they are,” Anderson said.

Watson includes bear attack tips when he talks to his guests.

Grizzly bears, or brown bears, identified by a shoulder hump and long, straight claws for digging, want to eliminate any surprises they encounter. In an attack, it's best to play dead. 

Black bears have curved claws for climbing. Black bears want to eat you, so it's best to fight back in a black bear attack.

Bob and Screech will be at Wilstem for three years, and Watson said he wants to balance the guest’s wants with his bear’s needs. 

To get better pictures, Watson wants to build tall viewing decks so guests can take pictures of the bears above the 8-foot tall fence. 

To better the lives of the bears, a waterfall and pool will be put in Watson also doesn’t have the animals trained to follow him, because he wants them to have some independence. So if the bears don't follow him to come up to the crowd, there is a trail around the whole enclosure to see the bears. 

“Most of the people who come here are animal lovers,” Watson said. “They just want to see them doing their thing.”

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