Over on TripAdvisor.com, tourists rave about the Fortress of the Bear, gushing over “seeing bears up close” and celebrating the organization’s stated purpose of saving orphaned animals. (They’ve actually earned a “Certificate of Excellence.”) The website’s (carefully cropped) photos depict the bears cavorting in a pristine wilderness environment:
And while no promises are made, one photo depicts a man hugging an adorable baby bear, implying the Fortress offers a remarkably intimate encounter with animals sheltered there.
So you can imagine our surprise when we find ourselves standing on a cement catwalk, overlooking a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with discarded tires, PVC pipes, plastic drums, and piles of debris:
Below us, two bears — one yawning, the other waving for food — sit in the middle of a converted water treatment tank with steep concrete walls.
About twenty-five other gawking tourists clamber around on the network of stairs, catwalks, and platforms that afford a view of the sprawling mess below us. Over our heads, a rehabilitation camp-style loudspeaker drones on about how lucky the bears below us really are. Occasionally, a keeper tosses bits of raw salmon in the air, prompting the bears to wave or fold their hands in prayer — their “sign language” for “More, please.”
For all the loftiness of the expressed mission, for all the heart-wrenching stories told about the bears sheltered here, and for all the praise from tourists around the world, I find the Fortress of the Bear to be one of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited. After ten minutes, I’m done — as is every other member of our party.
The experience at the Fortress has me dreading our next planned stop: the Alaska Raptor Center, another organization caring for injured animals (in this case, eagles and owls).
As it turns out, my dread isn’t justified at all. The Raptor Center is as delightful as the Fortress of the Bear is depressing. The animal enclosures are clean and spacious; the caregivers are approachable and knowledgable. Getting a great photo here doesn’t require clever cropping, because the setting is innately beautiful.
Like the Fortress, the Raptor Center is funded entirely by denotations from supporters, but here, those donations seem to have been channeled into what feels like a far healthier everyone involved.
As we leave the Raptor Center, I catch sight of a tiny owl, snug and warm in one corner of its habitat. As we pass by, he turns his head one hundred and eight degrees, staring back at me with huge, bright eyes. In that instant, I feel a real connection with the animal — a sort of wonder.
Especially compared to the pity and despair I felt at the Fortress of the Bears, this emotion (and this place) recharges me. We left the Fortress of the Bears as quickly as possible, snagging a $5.00 cab ride to secure a faster escape. Here at the Raptor Center, though, I find myself lagging behind the group, wishing for a few more minutes watching birds flit back and forth in the whispering canopy of the evergreen trees.