THE bear is depressed. He spends his day lying on the ground of his cage. He is nine years old and could easily live to over 50. His mother a distant memory, he has never seen another bear.
This is Oscar. Rather like the whale, his body is covered with thick layers of fat to cope with the extreme cold of his native Himalayas – but Oscar lives in the middle of the Free State and may never see snow in his life.
Originally Oscar belonged to a man who kept a variety of animals including Bengal Tigers. Then he became tired of Oscar – bears weren’t really his thing, the man decided. Big cats were more suitable.
So Oscar was bought by Joe Regal, Free State farmer, taxidermist and guest house owner. He bought Oscar after his old bear, acquired from a zoo, died aged 54.
‘A bear is nice to have’, Regal said. ‘I keep it because I love animals.’
He also has baboons and other animals for guests to admire. ‘They can go for a walk and see the animals in their cages. It’s something more than other guest houses offer.’
In November 2009 Maria Hanger visited Regal’s farm and ‘an incident’, as everyone involved now refers to it, took place: Hanger was injured by the bear on her lower right arm and hand; she lost one finger and part of another.
When Hanger sued for damages in the high court, Bloemfontein, the court had first to decide whether Regal was liable before considering whether she should be awarded compensation.
Hanger initially said she never touched the jackal-proof wire fencing around the iron bars of the cage. In its judgment the court said she appeared at first to claim that the bear put its mouth through the wire fencing and bit her hand, pulling her hand and arm through the fencing. According to this version, Regal was negligent because the fencing wasn’t safe enough.
But during cross-examination Hanger agreed there was no way the bear could push its mouth through the wire. In addition, a witness who was with Hanger directly contradicted Hanger’s version.
The court heard from a top Free State nature conservation officer that Regal had the right permits. He had been to inspect the bear several times but had never expressed the view that the cage was inadequate to ensure public safety.
There was also no evidence that Regal should have foreseen that a ‘grown-up person’ who admitted to knowing that the bear was dangerous and could injure her, would, after being specifically warned, still allow her fingers to protrude into the bear’s cage’ while, on her own version, the bear was sitting very close to the fence where her protruding fingers would have been in easy reach of his mouth.
The court concluded that Hanger failed to put up evidence on which a reasonable court could find that Regal was negligent. This meant he was also not liable to pay her compensation, and her claim was dismissed.
‘The incident’ caused his wife a nervous breakdown, Regal said this week, and they decided not to keep the bear. The animal is now with HART – Helping Animals Recover from Trauma – a wildlife rehabilitation centre near Kroonstad. MD of Hart, Dr Yvette Pozyn, said they were concerned about Oscar, as they have named the bear.
‘The incident’ was not Oscar’s fault, she said. Referring to the finding that Hanger’s hands were close to the cage Pozyn said: ‘You don’t behave like this round wild animals.’
‘You use common sense. You never go up to a wild animal. Never, never, never.’
She said Oscar had no-one to socialise with. ‘He is highly intelligent and he thrives on human attention. But he is clearly depressed and lonely and he just lies there. It’s a very sad thing.’
‘We have contacted all the zoos in South Africa, but without success. They are all moving away from exotic animals and are keeping indigenous animals instead.’
Pozyn said they still hoped there would be a happy-ever-after story for Oscar, as they were trying to find him a sanctuary in India. Hart was being ultra-careful about re-homing him, however, and would under no circumstances allow him to go to a private collector or to a situation where he could be forced into bear-baiting or fighting against dogs – the fate of many Himalayan black bears in their original native area.