Tuesday 17 January 2017

Bear hugs for couple who adopt orphaned animals

Published 14/10/2016 | 10:51

Jim Kowalczik plays with Jimbo at the Orphaned Wildlife Centre in upstate New York (AP)
Jim Kowalczik plays with Jimbo at the Orphaned Wildlife Centre in upstate New York (AP)
Jim Kowalczik plays with Jimbo at the Orphaned Wildlife Centre in upstate New York (AP)

A New York couple have shown how they are not afraid of getting up close and personal with huge bears at their rescue centre.

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Jim and Susan Kowalczik care for bears including 1,500lb Jimbo at the Orphaned Wildlife Centre, 60 miles north-west of New York City.

The couple have cared for Jimbo for almost 23 years, since he first came to the couple's haven for injured or unwanted animals as a bottle-feeding cub.

"He'll play with you all day if you have the time," Mr Kowalczik said, adding that it's fortunate the bear doesn't throw his weight around casually. "If he lays on you, you've got a problem."

Jimbo is among the 11 bears living at the couple's non- centre.

One of them, a black bear named Frankie, was born in the wild and found his way here in 2012 after being hit by a car.

The rest of the bears here were born in captivity, eight of them Syrian brown bears or mixes that came from a breeding programme. Jimbo came from a West Coast game farm with an injured leg.

Mr Kowalczik has grabbed attention for his hands-on approach. One Facebook video of him playing with Jimbo has received more than 16 million views. He describes it as if it was something as natural as petting a dog. The bears are like his children, he said, and they have never injured him.

"There's no false pretences like there are with people and stuff," Mr Kowalczik said. "What you see is what you get."

The couple have been rehabilitating squirrels, ducks, deer, mink and other animals together since the early 1990s. The main goal is to release animals, but the bears here cannot be released because of injuries or because they are too accustomed to captivity.

Bears are in 57-year-old Susan Kowalczik's bloodline. Her father, Albert Rix, was a well-known circus veteran from Germany who raised Syrian brown bears. Jim, 60, is a retired corrections officer.

The Kowalcziks funded the venture out of their own pockets until creating the non-profit last year, which allows them to take donations.

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