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Nashville Scene Deacon Blues

What to do with a dysfunctional cub

By Matt Pulle

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Finding a home for Deacon, a precocious wild black bear cub, wasn't an easy task. Raised illegally by a family in East Tennessee's rural Washington County until he was confiscated by a state wildlife official and given a temporary home at the Nashville Zoo, Deacon can never be released into the wild. He can't feed himself and unlike other cubs who scurry away at the rustling of footsteps on dried leaves, Deacon is not shy about approaching humans. If he were set out into the woods, he'd be a danger to himself or, for that matter, any passing hiker.

So what do you do with him? Last month, Walter Cook, captive wildlife coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Division, decided to release Deacon to the Ellijay Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a 40-acre animal sanctuary in north Georgia. There he will be taken care of by a well-trained staff and may be given some land to roam. It's not the Smoky Mountains, but it's better than a zoo, right?

That's the question of the moment. While Ellijay rehabilitates many wild animals so that they can be released back into their original natural setting, the center also has educational programs in which they showcase wild animals, including bears, to schoolchildren. Often they take the animals on the road in a cage not just to neighboring Tennessee, but as far away as Wisconsin. Not everyone thinks this is the best fate for young Deacon.

"The life of a bear that is being exhibited is not a good life," says Don Elroy, director of Tennessee Network for Animals, an animal rights group that has taken an interest in Deacon. "You travel in a tiny cage, people stand and gape at you."

Other animal rights activists also frown on using bears like Deacon for educational purposes. "There's no education in seeing a bear lie out in a cage," says Lynn Curry, the executive director of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Boerne, Texas. "If we had an ounce of genuine respect for these animals we wouldn't subject them to this kind of life."

Curry says bears like Deacon, who admittedly can't be released into the wild, can be sent to sanctuaries where they can live in a natural, expansive setting that's as close to their original habitat as possible. But Cook says that's not likely to happen.

"I'd like to know where that's at. I keep being told about this kind of place but no one's giving me a name and address."

It's not clear what kind of habitat Deacon has at Ellijay. Officials at the facility referred all question to Cook, who did not know the specifics on the cub's new home. But one official with the state of Georgia who has dealt with Ellijay in the past says Deacon will likely be kept in a caged facility or "some kind of captive environment."

Deacon's life on the road is not likely to be any more glamorous. He'll probably traverse state lines in a pickup truck with a camper top while secured in a 12x18-foot cage. A steel panel lines the bottom of the cage covered by 8 to 12 inches of sawdust. When exhibited, Deacon will obviously remain in his cage while visitors will be prohibited from going within 8 feet of him.

The state does deserve credit for nursing a sickly Deacon back to health. A misguided family had been trying to raise the cub and was feeding him with a bottle. That's not a good way to feed a wild animal. Too much water dripped into the cub's lungs and shortly thereafter Deacon began coughing and contacted pneumonia. After the animal was confiscated, he was taken to the Veterinary Department at the University of Tennessee. Soon after, a heavily medicated Deacon went to the Appalachian Bear Center in nearby Townsend. In a few weeks, Deacon began to feel better.

The curator of the center, which houses primarily orphaned cubs before releasing them back into their original habitat, had hoped that when in the presence of other cubs, Deacon would learn to behave like a wild animal. Instead, the exact opposite happened.

Watching Deacon readily approach other humans, the wild cubs soon followed his lead. "He was a bad influence," says Daryl Ratajczak, the center's curator. "We were hoping that the wild cubs would teach him to be wild but instead it was the reverse."

At that point, Ratajczak said they had to get Deacon away from the other cubs. So he arranged for the Nashville Zoo to hold him until a permanent home could be found.

Cook says Deacon's plight offers at least one good lesson to the schoolchildren who will soon see him on display: Cubs, no matter how adorable, don't make good pets and once they're domesticated they most likely can never be released into the wild again. But did Deacon's unfortunate upbringing doom him to a life spent in a largely captive environment? Not everyone is so sure.

"I don't think the state put any effort in placing this bear," says Elroy with the Tennessee Network for Animals. "They took the first place that came along."

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