Every three months or so, the videos make the rounds on social media and rack up millions of views. They are almost impossibly adorable; in them, massive brown bears sit up on their hind quarters and wave. They're rewarded with slices of bread, which they catch in their mouths and paws like edible frisbees. And then they go back to waving, to the delight of the giggling tourists.
There are 19 of these brown bears at the Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, Washington. It's about a 2-hour drive from Seattle and is located near the northeast border of Olympic National Park. The Farm supports itself mostly on tourist dollars and donations, and for a long time (until recently, around when the bear videos started going viral), the farm relied on old-fashioned word-of-mouth to attract visitors. Tourism had actually begun to dip in recent years, possibly because the location was so isolated from the rest of civilization.
"Since we're way out here in the rural part of of the Olympic Peninsula, the best we could do for a time was dial-up [Internet]," said Robert Beebe, President of the Olympic Game Farm, in an interview with Motherboard. "And then we got DSL. And right now, I'm trying to work a deal with the local cable company to run cable out here and get us up to speed."
But several viral videos, Carrie Underwood music video cameo (skip to 1:31), and a handful of morning talk show appearances later, and the Farm is thriving. The bread-munching, paw-waving brown bears are a major part of that.
Originally owned by Robert's grandfather, wildlife photographer Lloyd Beebe, the Olympic Game Farm was a movie set and animal repository for Walt Disney Studios from the 1950's into the 1970's. Disney used many of the Farm's animals in productions such as White Wilderness (1958) and The Incredible Journey (1963). Both the television and movie productions of Grizzly Adams also employed the Farm's animal actors.
But after Walt Disney died in 1966 and the output of nature films decreased, the Farm became a retirement community for those animal actors, and Lloyd began taking in wild animal orphans in need of a caring home. Today, the Farm is still run and owned by the Beebe family; two of his grandchildren, Robert and James, supervise its day-to-day operations. The current animals are mostly descendants of the original animals or captive bred animals from other facilities that couldn't afford to keep them.
Beebe employs three dedicated animal care professionals in addition to himself and his brother. Another ten supporting staff members maintain the premises and do field work and landscaping. And aside from the buffalo, zebra, tigers, wolves, and other animals that also live on the Farm, the bears are a financial handful. A full-grown, omnivore bear can consume up to 70 pounds of food every day. Fifty pounds of that is meat—anything from beef cow to horse. When local farmers' horses or cattle die, Beebe will get a phone call; the Olympic Game Farm does its own meat processing on location.
The remaining 20 pounds of food is vegetables, plus any grass from the field itself. Currently, the bears are at the end of their hibernation season, which means they'll only eat every third day. But by the time October rolls around and the bears are fattening up for the winter, they'll consume 70 pounds of food daily, at a cost of $500 to $1,000 per day, per bear. The whole wheat bread slices, which tourists will throw to the bears from their cars, are a mere snack by comparison.
The bears' paw waving, which has made them internationally famous, has been a part of their behavior as far back as Beebe can remember.
"It's something they've always done," said Beebe. "The [original bears] were hand-raised here in the house with my grandparents, so they were really used to people. And they had some other training off and on. But waving was not [part of that training].
The bears actually figured out how to wave on their own.
"The bears would do something funny or cute, and the tourists would get excited and throw bread out," said Beebe. "It only took a little while for the bears to put two and two together, and say, 'If I do this, I can get that.' Bears are pretty smart, and they can figure things out pretty quickly."
If one is planning a visit to the Olympic Game Farm, it is best to go during the summer or fall, when the bears will be the most lively and hungry. At the current time, they're just starting to stir from their winter slumber.
"They don't really go 'asleep' asleep," said Beebe. "It's not cold enough for them in Washington. But they do lay around and kind of doze in and out. But they're starting to wake up now. They're starting to 'work' some cars."