Jeff Watson and his two enormous, furry sidekicks are in high demand.
They’ve been everywhere together. On the set of The Tonight Show. In commercials for Rice Krispies Treats and washing machines. On episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and, just recently, Impractical Jokers. And even on their own Animal Planet special called “Project Grizzly.”
For the next three years, though, they’re setting up shop in a new home: French Lick.
You won’t find brown bears in the wild in Indiana — at least not since the late 1800s, and not within hundreds and hundreds of miles here today. But that’s changed now that Jeff has brought his pair of almost-7-year-old grizzly bears named Bob and Screech to southern Indiana in the newest animal encounter offered within the 1,100 acres at Wilstem, which is less than a 10-minute drive from French Lick Resort.
“Encounter” is a relative term, because unlike the other animal encounters offered at Wilstem where you can feed a giraffe, pet a kangaroo or give an elephant a bath, you keep a safe distance from these bears that weigh more than 700 pounds and consume about 50 pounds of food per day (they bite through whole, raw sweet potatoes like potato chips).
Jeff speaks fluent bear, since he’s had the animals for 30 years. He just wanted to raise one initially, then decided to marry a hobby with a profession. He lays out all the bear background and takes questions from guests while interacting with Bob and Screech after they amble out of their den and roam through their spacious grassy enclosure. He pats them on the snout, tossing them oranges and hard-boiled eggs — you might even catch him giving them high-fives.
He’s also sure guests understand that while the grizzlies appear tame around him, there’s a reason for the pair of 8-foot perimeter fences (one electrically charged) separating the bears from the guests. Needless to say, you wouldn’t win a wrestling match with one of these guys. But you might see them up on their hind legs, wrestling and pawing at each other — they are littermate brothers, after all.
They might have more company in the future, too. Jeff has more bears back home 60 miles north of here, and he indicated that in time, they’ll come down to Wilstem as well. In the meantime, Bob and Screech are the stars of this show that you won’t see anywhere else in this part of the country. Jeff gives us a few more things to bear in mind about the grizzly experience:
“I don’t believe there’s any other place within quite a few states that allows this type of experience. Many zoos have bears, but we’re offering a large, expansive natural habitat. There are parks out West that (contain) natural habitats. But for the Midwest, we hope to have an exclusive here.”
“We wanted to give people an experience here where they could experience bears in a natural habitat — earth, grass, trees. We’re allowing people to get close, but not too close. People want to touch these bears, and that’s not going to happen here at Wilstem. We’re going to let you get close, see them in their pool, roaming the hills and eating their grass, wrestling with each other, interacting with me. Most North American zoos don’t have keepers in with their apex carnivores, so that’s something unique that we’re offering here. You can see scale that way — you can see the relationship, the bond that we have.”
What’s interesting to watch or notice about the bears for guests when they visit?
“Screech (named for the noise he made when he was a cub) has a little more jovial personality. Bob’s the alpha; he’s the boss. Bob seems to have somewhat of an ominous mind, so he’s always looking to sneak one over on you. I watch myself a little more with Bob. I love ’em both — Bob’s like that special child you just have to give a little more attention to, and sleep with one eye open.” (laughs)
Anything else new coming in the future with the bear encounter?
“This is a constantly evolving enclosure (and the) habitat is constantly evolving. We’re looking at putting more benches and more platforms for people to photograph from and film from, and anything that we can add to it that can enhance the experience is what we’re going to do. We just want to keep adding to it.”
Interested in booking an encounter with the grizzly bears during your visit to French Lick Resort? For more details, visit wilstem.com or call (812) 936-4484 to inquire about availability.
Wilstem features dozens of more exotic animals, including kangaroos that you can get up close with in the "Roos and Crew" encounter.