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North American Bear Center in Ely ranked No. 4 museum in Minnesota by Tripadvisor

by Elizabeth Granger Mesabi Tribune

Holly, 10, is from Arkansas. Separated from her mother by a wildfire, she was rescued by a man who cared for her for 6 months. She moved on to a rehabilitation facility, which determined she would not survive in the wild. She was rescued by NABC in December 2013. Her name reflects the time of year she moved to Ely. Also that the holly berry is a natural bear food. Photo courtesy of North American Bear Center.

ELY—South Carolinians Evonne Swanson and her family were sightseeing along the North Shore recently when an artist they met suggested they visit Ely.

“We turned around and came here on his advice." Swanson said. The suggestion took them to the North American Bear Center.


"At first I thought. ‘Oh. that's not good—people interacting with bears,” she said. "But this develops respect and appreciation; this is educational. This is the way it should be done."

It's a sentiment clearly shared by many, because Tripadvisor’s 2023 list of Minnesota's best museums has the Bear Center ranked No. 4.


Ursine residents Lucky, Tasha and Holly welcome visitors from their attractive new enclosures, completed earlier this year, that include bear dens as well as plenty of foliage. A pond below the viewing deck invites the trio to take a dip on hot summer days, although not all three at the same time. When one of the bears blows bubbles in the water, you’ll hear laughter from visitors as they talk of their early swimming lessons.


Each of the bears is a rescue. Lucky, the only male, is 16; Holly, 10; and Tasha, 8. They'll spend the rest of their lives at the center because experts have determined they would not survive in the wild.


Ted and Honey were the centers first bears. Honey was 20 when she died in 2016: Ted was almost 26 when he died last fall.


The current bear trio is the big deal here, to be sure. Behind the Scenes tours take visitors for a short, narrated walk along the enclosures to meet the bears.


But small animals—Tuck the turtle. Sid and Sophie the salamanders. Spaghetti and Linguine the snakes—are among local animals that welcome visitors, especially the young set, to show-anti tell-and-touch opportunities during Critter Time in the Cub Room.


A wide view of northern Minnesota wildlife is in the Northwoods Ecology Hall. "To fully understand any type of animal, you have to understand the area where it lives and what it lives with." said biologist/assistant director Spencer Peter. "When people first walk in. there’s a ’Wow!’ because the moose towers over the whole room. You never get the chance to be nose-to-nose to a moose like that."


The center is the dream- come-true of Dr. Lynn Rogers. who has spent more than five decades studying the black bear. In addition to the bear center, the Ely area also accommodates his Wildlife Research Institute.


Rogers is regarded by many as "the Jane Goodall of black bears."


Rogers’ trust-based research methods combine scientific observation with modern technology. Attitudes change as bears themselves show humans their reality. Much of that information is presented in short, easy-to-understand snippets displayed throughout the museum. Bear habitat, habits, hibernation, reproduction, communication, .... More than a smidgin of information dispels myths about bears. Examples?


No real bear likes honey as much as Winnie the Pooh does.


Hibernation times depend on a bear's genetics. Bears from northern climes hibernate earlier and longer than do bears from southern climes. Tasha, from Kentucky, hibernates from late October through late March. Lucky, from Wisconsin, hibernates earlier and longer. So does Holly, from Arkansas. because it's been determined that she has some "northern" genes.


Black bear attacks are extremely rare. Rogers has written: “What should people do if they see a black bear in the wild? Basically, enjoy it.”


"There are many people who are fully supportive of this center." Peter said. “They love the bears, and they love watching them on the live cam if they can’t be here. We’ve been blessed to have a ton of supporters and a ton of volunteers who always step up to the plate.”


In addition to the new fencing, areas throughout the building, including the ledge below the huge viewing windows, have been recently updated. There are a new nesting platform for a large bird of prey such as an osprey or eagle, a fisher nest box, a boreal owl nest box, a bat "hotel" that can hold quite a few bats. Plans are in the works for additional nature trails.


“We want you to come learn about bears,” Peter said. “In a nutshell, that's our mission. We don’t want people to go to bear country, wherever it is. and be fearful about black bears. They're not an animal that requires that amount of tear. Come visit us and learn the truth about them.”


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