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Another recent diversion has come in the form of dozens of protesters who have gathered at Spyke's on a few Saturday afternoons, demanding that JoJo, a black bear who has lived here for most of his nineteen years in the company of the Spiece family (owners of the grove), several peacocks, and some ducks, be transferred to surroundings more in keeping with his bearness.
During the past couple of years, a pair of animal-rights organizations A the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) A has taken up JoJo's cause, offering to pay for his relocation to a well-regarded sanctuary in Oregon called Wildlife Images, home to a handful of declawed or otherwise unreleasable bears. Asserting that JoJo's captivity is needless, the groups cite numerous United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection reports faulting the way the Spieces care for the animal. ARFF has issued a press release headlined "Spyke's Groves denies parole for death sentence issued to JoJo the Bear."
ARFF spokeswoman Vanessa Moore heads the campaign. "We've had a lot of complaints from locals," says Moore. "They see him every day, a bear living in solitary confinement, and people are puzzled as to why. Why not give him the five or whatever years he has left [black bears generally have a lifespan of 25 to 35 years] in a better environment, a larger place with grass, stimulation, the chance to interact with other bears, and a bear expert to oversee his care?"
Karen Witusik is one local who has taken part in the demonstrations. Witusik says she has sent petitions and letters to the Spieces, who have owned Spyke's for nearly 50 years, but hasn't received a response. "A woman told me she went there and saw ten bowel movements in his pen and that he had no water to drink," Witusik exclaims. "In the summers, when Spyke's closes, he's totally isolated. What quality of life does this bear have? He should have a chance to see what life looks like without bars. He committed no crime, he did nothing wrong."
Barbara Spiece contends that the twenty-acre grove/tourist attraction has done nothing wrong, either. Bears are part of Spyke's lore, Spiece explains: More than three decades ago, some Indians brought a bear cub to Spyke's. Dubbed Toby, the animal lived there for eighteen years, along with other castoff animals given refuge at the grove, which also boasts a natural garden with trails, acres of citrus trees, and a chicken coop. Shortly after Toby's death, another cub appeared on the doorstep. "JoJo was traveling around in the back of a station wagon as a pet, and he was outgrowing it," Spiece says. "Twenty years later, if I had it to live over again, I would have let him live in Oregon. He's not sad, not depressed. This is his home, he's like a dog or cat A he loves it. There are plenty of people he knows and has a relationship with."
Packing the big lug off to a retreat in relative wilderness to live out his golden bear years would be a fine idea, Spiece says, except for one problem: "His vet said he probably wouldn't make it to the airport, much less to Oregon. At his age, the stress of moving would probably kill him."
Dr. Terri Parrott, the bear's veterinarian, agrees. "JoJo is too old to be moved," says Parrott. "It would not be good for him. He's healthy and well taken care of, but he's old."
Says ARFF's Vanessa Moore: "We share in the concern of a long trip. We're working on another relocation option closer to home. But until we get a yes from [Spyke's], we can't get a commitment from a sanctuary."
This past Saturday was the deadline for Spyke's to renew some of its bear-keeping paperwork with the USDA. This past June a USDA inspector cited several problems at Spyke's: Wastewater from the bear's drinking pool was draining improperly and attracting flies; wires were protruding from fencing wrapped around the lower half of the cage; and a perimeter fence that keeps the public several yards away from the cage fell a few feet short of the required eight-foot height. "We told them to fix these problems and we'd be back," says Dr. Elizabeth Goldentyer, a USDA veterinarian and animal-care specialist. "These are things we felt they could repair. If nothing is done and they're still in violation, then the inspector may recommend an official warning ticket or an investigation, which could lead to a case, which could lead to fines."