Get Back, JoJo

JoJo hasn't seen another bear since he was separated from his mother as a cub. Never having hunted or fished, he subsists instead on dog food, fruit, and table scraps. When he's not swinging on the tire that hangs from a chain attached to the ceiling of his 12-by-25-foot cage, he can watch the cars that whiz by on nearby Griffin Road. Sometimes he gets a closer look at the occupants of those cars, when they stop in to buy citrus or stroll the grounds of JoJo's home, Spyke's Groves in Davie.

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."

They're still in violation. "The thing with the USDA," Barbara Spiece says, "is every year they come back and say, 'Do this or that; the regulations have changed, and now do this.' For a number of years, we complied. But every year it's something different, and it's getting to be too much. We said, 'Look, we're not going to do it. If you want to come take the animals, fine. We don't accept animals any more, anyway. All we have now are fowl and the bear. We've had animals for almost 50 years, and we've never had a problem with them. That's what irritates me with these animal-rights people. The real problem is at Easter people buy bunnies, which are real cute for a few weeks, then they grow up to be rabbits. These animal-rights people need to be out there educating people about that. We're not taking [castoffs] any more. That's what we did for JoJo and a lot of other animals. If we hadn't, I don't know what would have happened to them."

On a recent afternoon, JoJo's cage was spotless, although the small pool of water had some green growth on its walls. Twice each day, Randy Williams, who takes care of the bear, uses honey to lure the bear into a holding pen at the rear of the cage. Then he cleans the area and puts down trays of dog food. While giving JoJo a back rub and a thorough scratching, Williams offers his view of the controversy surrounding JoJo's fate. "These protesters piss me off," says Williams, as the bear presents his back to the bars of the cage for more scratching. "He's perfectly happy. A few weeks ago, about 30 of them showed up, and last time [February 18] about 60 of them were here. We don't go to their place and hold up signs. Don't they have anything better to do?"

The animal-rights activists say they're worried about a planned construction project, which will widen Griffin Road; they fear the proximity of the roadway will be even more detrimental to the bear. "The [widening project] doesn't even begin until 1997," Barbara Spiece responds. "We don't want JoJo that close to the road, but it would be a hard thing to move him [to another part of Spyke's]. I'm not sure what we're going to do." Then she adds: "JoJo is at the end of his normal lifespan. We hope nature beats out the transportation department."

For today at least, the bear seems unconcerned. Opening his mouth to expose two-inch teeth in a beary grin, he presses his back to the walls of the cage, oblivious to the human efforts to alter his fate.

Right now he just wants his back scratched.


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