August 12, 2013

Grizzly bear show at Skowhegan State Fair gives crowd pause

Hundreds of spectators find the performance entertaining, educational and 'awesome.'

By AMY CALDER Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN - Eleven-year-old Hunter Bertone watched as Dexter Osborn tossed a basketball to Tonk, a 600-pound grizzly bear.

click image to enlarge

Dexter Osborn puts on a show with Tonk, his 600-pound Alaskan grizzly bear, at the Skowhegan State Fair on Sunday.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

"Oh, yay!" Hunter said.

Tonk, sitting on a platform, started licking the ball as Osborn rubbed the bear's stomach.

"Are you guys enjoying the show so far?" Osborn asked.

"Yes!" Hunter's 9-year-old sister, Rachel, exclaimed.

The Bertones were watching "A Grizzly Experience" at Skowhegan State Fair on Sunday afternoon with their parents, Monica and Andrew, and sister, Sage, 8.

The Anson family and about 300 other spectators sat on bleachers or stood for the midway show, which was billed as a close-up and personal look at the Alaskan grizzly bear.

The show, free with gate admission, is held at 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. daily, just inside the back gate of the fair, off Beech Street.

Osborn, his wife, Megan, and their toddler, Hayden, spend four to six months a year away from their southwest Florida home, teaching people about grizzly bears at fairs, festivals and other shows.

Tonk, a large, 8-year-old, brown-and-tan grizzly, lumbered around an enclosed pen and stepped up on platforms as Osborn fed him marshmallows to get him to do tricks, such as rolling on his back and sitting up straight.

The audience laughed and cooed as Tonk stood on his hind legs and walked around the pen with Osborn.

The bear was born in captivity in a zoo in northern Georgia and was given to the Osborns when it was 6 weeks old and weighed less than 10 pounds, Osborn said.

"He was so small, he fit in shoe box," he said.

Now, Tonk stands 6 feet tall on his hind legs and when he is fully grown could stand 10 feet tall and weigh 800 pounds, Osborn said.

The grizzly eats about 25 pounds of food a day, with a diet that includes high-protein dog food, raw chicken, fruits and vegetables, Osborn said.

"He even enjoys the occasional cheeseburger from McDonald's we love so much," he said. "He loves cheeseburgers."

Megan Osborn talked about bear safety and told spectators to always keep their distance from bears and never feed animals in the wild.

"Do not run or make any sudden movements because that could make that bear suddenly attack you," she said.

When people camp, they should keep their campsite clean and put food in bear-proof containers, she said. People should sleep at least 100 yards away from eating areas and clean up all food when they leave a site, she said.

"Stay alert and aware of surroundings at all times," she said.

If one does encounter a bear close up, he should lie down on his stomach and be still until the bear leaves the area, she said.

"Always remember, every situation is different, of course," she said.

People who hunt, fish or camp in bear country may buy bear spray to protect themselves, she said.

Dexter Osborn handed Tonk a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew soda.

"Tonk here particularly enjoys Mountain Dew, don't you, bud?" he said.

The bear took the bottle between its front paws, tipped the plastic bottle and drank the soda.

Just before the show ended, Dexter Osborn said people may, for a fee, feed Tonk "bear kabobs," or marshmallows on a stick. The money would go to the conservation and care of the bears, he said.

The Bertone family members said they were awestruck by the bear show.

"I thought it was real neat," said Monica, 34. "It's neat to see how they interact with them and teach them to do tricks. Definitely worth coming."

Andrew, 39, described the show as "awesome."

"The whole time you're being entertained, you're learning about the educational information," he said. "It's really useful."

Sage said she learned about how people control a bear.

"I also liked how he stood up," she said.

The Bertones had earlier marched in the 4-H parade at the fair.

As members of the Havin' Fun 4-H Club of Skowhegan they entered several exhibits in the fair, including photographs and arts and crafts.

The club won third place for an educational exhibit called "One Hundred Years of Baking," which included displays of bon-bons, molasses krinkles and peanut-butter hobo cookies, according to Monica Bertone.

Hunter said he loves the 195-year-old fair, which on Sunday took place under sunny skies.

"It's stupendous," he said.

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

acalder@centralmaine.com

 

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