Grizzly celebrities coming to Boone County Fair

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 | 4:47 p.m. CDT; updated 6:48 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Johnny Welde, 53, kisses Ginger, a 16-year-old female grizzly bear that Welde has raised since she was a cub.

For the Welde family, gearing up for the Boone County Fair does not involve the typical preparations of plumping pigs or braiding horses' manes.

The Weldes train bears.

The bear facts

Taxonomists seem to agree the grizzly bear is a subspecies of the brown bear family (Ursus arctos), according to the North American Bear Center.

Because of environmental factors, there are many brown bear subspecies, such as the grizzly bear, the European brown bear and the kodiak bear. Grizzlies are differentiated from other bears of the brown bear family by a medium to dark brown coat with gray or "grizzled" tips on their fur.

"Early North American frontiersmen believed the bears' wet, muddy fur coats and disgruntled demeanor had a grizzled look to them, and so they earned the nickname grizzly," Johnny Welde said.

Welde prefers the term "European brown bear" for the 11 he's trained on his ranch in Florida. He said they can weigh anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds and have an average life span of 18 to 20 years in the wild or about 32 years in captivity.

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Johnny and Monica Welde and their band of grizzly bears, based in Florida, are coming to the Boone County Fair from July 27 to July 31, the last five days of the fair. The fair begins Wednesday.

For the past 84 years, bears have been a part of the Welde family. Johnny Welde said his grandfather, Johnny Johnson Welde, came to the United States from Norway to work with polar bears and brown bears for the Ringling Bros. Circus.

Each Welde Big Bear Show is a 20-minute demonstration that uses toys, such as ladders, skateboards and hoops, to show off the grizzlies' natural behaviors and instincts. 

“We have climbing rocks and a pool that gives the bears a place to play and tools, such as large balls, to promote balance,” Johnny Welde said.

Boone County Fair organizers chose the Welde Big Bear Show because "it was a really family-oriented act that focused on education about the grizzly bears and the loss of their habitat," said Harold Cunningham, president of the Boone County Fairground's board of directors.

Fairground manager George Harris said the bear exhibit also seemed likely to attract more visitors and perpetuate a trend. 

Harris has been manager since 1992 and said he has seen the fair grow every year, both in attendance and number of attractions. With more than 100,000 attendees, last year's fair had the best turnout ever.

Cunningham said he is not worried about the bear show drawing complaints from animal rights' activists, such as PETA, who attend the fair and check out the animals.

"We make sure that everyone stays in the guidelines, the way everyone wants,"  Cunningham said. "The only problem that I am aware of concerned bunnies last year."

In July 2009, operators of a carnival game received criticism from animal welfare officials because they were giving away bunnies as prizes.

The Welde Big Bear Show has appeared in fairs nationwide. The Florida State Fair in Tampa, close to the Welde's ranch, has hosted the bear show for 14 years.

The Welde's bears have appeared in several movies for Universal, Disney and 20th Century Fox studios, as well as popular sitcoms, such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Lucille Ball Show" and "Lassie."

Known for their good looks and charming personalities, 16-year-old bear twins, Fred and Ginger, are masters in show business.

"They are the oldest bears in the show and are also the prettiest, with beautiful golden blond hair," Welde said. "These two are real sweethearts."

Fred and Ginger, plus 6-year-old bear twins Bruno and Bambi, recently modeled for Disney animation artists to be used in the movie "Brother Bear," and appear in the credits. They also appeared in the 2003 film "Big Fish," directed by Tim Burton.

Johnny Welde said the Welde's Big Bear Show is trying to raise money for a bear orphanage renovation project in Florida.

“We are trying to generate money for a larger bear shelter that would temporarily care for orphaned black bears until their release back into the wild,” Welde said. “This idea was imposed by the state to help with the troubles surrounding black bears.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, many threats to the survival of the grizzly bears are associated with habitats destroyed by human development.

"People just keep moving into the wilderness areas and building, so there are not enough habitats left for the bears anymore," Welde said.

The Welde's Big Bear Show will be at the Boone County Fair from July 27 to July 31, starring Fred, Ginger, Bruno, Bambi and Johnny.

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