Killing of 2 Captive Bears Ignites Va. Protest

Scouts Ethan Pyle, left, and Steve Calos lower an urn with the ashes of one of the two black bears into a burial vault as hundreds of mourners watch.
Scouts Ethan Pyle, left, and Steve Calos lower an urn with the ashes of one of the two black bears into a burial vault as hundreds of mourners watch. (Photos By Alexa Welch Edlund -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

RICHMOND, March 4 -- This city said goodbye to two of its most prominent citizens Saturday, 350-pound black bears Buster and Baby, whose deaths at the hands of their human captors have plunged residents into mourning so deep that hundreds called the police to report their distress, thousands posted to online bulletin boards and the city's famed mayor ordered an investigation.

Two weeks ago, one of the bears was accused of biting a 4-year-old boy who had stuck his hand through the 10-foot-high, chain-link fence that encloses their habitat at Richmond's Maymont Park.

The child was not badly hurt -- no stitches were needed. But with his mother unable to peg which bear did the biting, park and health officials decided five days later to euthanize both animals and send their brains to a state laboratory for rabies testing. The episode became public Feb. 23 only after both bears were dead and their headless, chemical-laced carcasses had been dumped at a local landfill.

The outrage was immediate and extreme. Dozens called 911 upon seeing the first news report. City Hall was flooded with calls. So was the park.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the flamboyant former Virginia governor, promised quick action, including consequences for city officials involved in the decision to kill the bears and possible criminal charges against the child's mother. He ordered workers to find the bears and prepare a fitting memorial site. After three hours of sifting through garbage with a backhoe last week, landfill employees recovered the bodies.

And so, on Saturday, Buster and Baby were laid to rest at Maymont.

In a sign of the city's emotion, about 500 attended the funeral, many sobbing and clutching flowers and stuffed bears. A Boy Scout troop escorted a color guard and lowered bronze urns containing the bears' ashes into a hole dug in the soft mud. An Episcopal priest offered a prayer. Wilder gave the eulogy.

"These bears are making a contribution even in their death, because they remind us that they lived, but they were put to death not by their own kind," he told the crowd. "Let us continue to be certain that nature provides us with lessons for how to live."

Maymont is the Central Park of Richmond, a 100-acre oasis of rolling trails and gardens in the heart of the city. Its prime attraction has always been its animals, and for 25 years the most beloved of those creatures have been several generations of black bears. They are visited by about a half-million people a year, many of them children.

How, exactly, the 4-year-old was bitten is not clear. This much is known: The park separates bears from people with both the chain-link fence and a shorter, four-foot-high wooden fence. Neither was broken.

According to a preliminary report the mayor released Friday, the child's mother, who has not been identified, first told city officials that she helped the small boy over the lower fence to get closer. The report also indicates that she might have told a nurse at the hospital where the child's hand was examined that she had been visiting Maymont for years to feed the bears.

However, in an anonymous interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the child's mother insisted that she glanced away from her son for a moment and that when she looked back, he was over the short fence and trying to pet a bear.

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