LANSING (WWJ/AP) – An Upper Peninsula ranch may soon allow visitors to pet and take photos with bear cubs again under legislation approved Thursday by the House despite concerns that it could put people at risk of injury and disease.

The bill, approved by a 56-52 vote, would allow the handling of bear cubs under 9 months old or weighing no more than 90 pounds at places that already permitted it.

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The legislation was introduced specifically to allow bear handling at Oswald’s Bear Ranch, near Newberry — about 20 minutes south of Tahquamenon Falls, another popular tourism spot. The ranch claims to be the largest of its kind in the U.S. with 31 black bears.

Owner Dean Oswald said the ranch allowed people to pose and take pictures with bear cubs for 15 years until last year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the ranch it was illegal.

He said his business, which brings in about 10,000 cars every year, has since taken a hit.

“Everyone wants their picture with a cub,” he said. “It’s a big draw.”

But the legislation is causing some concern among the zoo community. Ron Kagan, Director of the Detroit Zoological Society, said they’re  worried about public safety because bears can carry dangerous diseases.

“One of them which is really of great concern in the zoo world, we’re all very, very careful about this and we don’t touch the animals, is something called Baylisascaris, which is an ascaris roundworm that is very, very dangerous to people. It causes blindness and in some cases, death, tuberculosis, rabies, salmonella, it’s just awful,” he said.

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They’re also concerned about what this bill means to the bears.

“We’ve seen the state records. They’re not rescues of orphaned bear cubs, they’re coming from places around the country that breed bears to sell them as cubs. So, a cub is taken away from its mother at a month-old, which is frankly very cruel, and then sold off. Some of those bears then after they get a little bit bigger apparently are destroyed,” he said.

The Senate approved the bill last month, and the measure will be returned to that chamber for final approval of an amendment that would ensure the law applies only to existing facilities.

Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, who supports the bill, said there had been concerns that facilities like these would spring up across the state if the bill is passed.

Snyder vetoed a similar measure last session because he was concerned about the change it was tied to in another bill. But Snyder said he supported the bear legislation and encouraged the Legislature to re-introduce the current bill on its own this session.

Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, opposes the bill, and cited concerns Thursday that handling the bears can result in serious health and safety issues for people and cause stress to the cubs. Schor said the ranch has also recently been cited by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources for violations, including illegally purchasing and receiving bear cubs.

A group of zoos in Michigan — including Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak and Potter Park Zoo in Lansing — and the Michigan Humane Society have vehemently opposed the bill, arguing it will lead to the exploitation of animals and put people in risk of serious harm.

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