As far back as he can remember, Dean Oswald has had an affinity for bears. Specifically, Black Bears, a common North American species. In 1984, Dean got himself a bear, and he took good care of it. People heard about his bear, so they brought him THEIR bears. Dean then had a whole bunch of bears, and more people came around to visit them. He figured he should charge money to help pay for bear food. In 1997, Oswald’s Bear Ranch opened to the public. The sanctuary now has about 50,000 visitors annually.
As home to nearly 40 bears, Oswald’s Bear Ranch is the largest bear-only sanctuary in the United States. It’s also been named one of the Top 10 family-friendly attractions in Upper Michigan.
The Oswald family rescues abused and abandoned bears and orphaned cubs from all over the country. They do not breed them, but all arrivals are allowed to live out their natural lives at the 240-acre ranch. Most Black Bears are black, but they also can be white, cream, cinnamon, chocolate or reddish in color. Adults typically weigh 300 to 400 pounds. The average bear lifetime is 25 to 30 years.
Oswald bears live communally in four natural habitats with trees, fresh running water to swim in, and drink pools. Visitors can walk smooth dirt trails between the habitats or stand on elevated platforms for unobstructed viewing over the chain-link fencing. The best show is at 4 p.m., which is the daily feeding time. (Bears are omnivores—they eat plants, grains, fish and meat.)
You can have your picture taken with a cub (with your camera) for an extra $10. The cub sits on a tree stump in front of a draped background, and you hold a spoonful of sweet mush up to its mouth. Smile. Click.
The bears, who know their names, have individual personalities. Buddy, for instance, is a shy guy. He was being picked on by the females, so Oswald put him in the yearling habitat, where he gets along just fine.
“He doesn’t know he’s a bear,” Dean said during a recent media visit. “He doesn’t hibernate.”
The most legendary of Oswald’s bear family was Tyson, who was 12 years old and 880 pounds when he died in 2002. It is believed he weighed 1,000 pounds before going into hibernation the winter before his death. Tyson was the largest known black bear in the country and possibly the world. He was a dear friend of the Oswalds, and his presence is still missed.
As the days grow longer in the fall, the bears go into hibernation. They rest comfortably in stump dens with wood floors and plenty of straw. Oswald’s Bear Ranch opens for the season on Memorial Day and closes on October 1.
Dean and Jewel Oswald
13814 County Road 407
Newberry, MI 49868