Koko is the fourth bear to live at the Bear Store in Hale. He was preceded by Bruno, who lived there from 1971 to 1989. The first bear to live at the store was Dolly in 1947, followed by Smokey. There were no records kept on their live spans or when they passed away

Koko is a male Michigan black bear. He was just 6 weeks old when he was brought from a breeding farm in Wisconsin in February of 1989 by owners Jerry and Cindy Spaw. They had worked with the DNR, looking for wild bear cubs whose mothers were killed or who had been abandoned before they contacted the breeding farm, but none were available. Like most babies, Koko wore diapers and drank from a bottle. He even had to be burped. Unlike human babies however, he had sharp claws and liked to play with the face of whoever was feeding him. Ouch! He lived inside the Spaw home until the weather was warm and at 5 months Koko was placed in his new home. As a youngster Koko liked to play with family members, but as he grew older he became too rough to play with and could be a little cranky from time to time.

Michigan Black Bears are solitary animals and only travel together when they are breeding or when the mother bears are caring for their young. They have a signaling system that is effective over long distances and they appear to sense and avoid each other. They may roam in an area as large as 150 km (90 mi.), to find food. They are able to remember sites and experiences which allow them to return year after year to areas where salmon runs, rich patches of berries and other concentrated foods are. A problem with the bear, are they develop new hunting patterns such as begging or scavenging which replace their native hunting skills. When humans are perceived as the source of their food, bear may attack if they are denied the food they have learned to rely on. This is one of the reasons Koko can never be returned to the wild. He has depended on people for food his entire life and no longer has the natural hunting instincts which would keep him alive in the wild. He also is not afraid of humans and would become a dangerous pest if he were set out in the wild.

The Black Bear has a life span of 15 to 30 years in the wild. They have a keen sense of smell, which is more developed than their hearing or eyesight. They are true hibernators, going without food for three to five months of the year. Their heart rate drops from 45 to only 10 beats per minute. In warm winter periods, a hibernating bear may revive and leave its den for a while. Koko has been known to come out and lay in the sun in February!!

Each year, in late November, Koko is given bales of straw which he uses to make his bed inside his “cave.” He uses what is left to pile in front of the opening, closing himself inside. Even though he may come out from time to time, it isn’t until he shows signs of hunger that we know winter is over for good!

Koko's New Home

DNR requires that Koko’s pen be 25’ L x 12’ W x 8’ H, and even though his home was bigger than that, the owners of the Bear Store decided to start a collection to try to raise money and build an even bigger pen. Wayne Champagne, owner of Champagne Construction Service in Livonia, MI, saw the collection box and offered his services. He asked if he could help find the materials and offered to donate the time, labor and materials to build the new pen. Like so many people he remembered coming up north and seeing the bear as a young child and then later, bringing his own children and grandchildren to see the bear. He wanted to be a part of the effort to improve the bear’s surroundings, keeping the bear happy and healthy so future generations would be able to enjoy seeing the bear up close. Over the next winter he and his family contacted many businesses to round up the materials they needed to build the pen. Because they had to weld the pen in large sections at home, they had to haul the sections to Hale. Many people were not happy following the big trailers at a snails pace on the highways from Livonia to Hale. Once they arrived the sections were assembled and welded in place.

Along with Champagne Construction, Arquette Concrete and Supply Inc. from Standish, MI sold all of the concrete at cost. The delivery driver donated his time and labor to drive to Hale and pour and level the concrete. Bernard Lumber of Hale donated all the plywood and forms for the pen and pool. Admin Industries of Rose City, donated pipe and Webb Well drilling of Hale donated all the excavating equipment and operators to dig the new pen and pool. The Bears Den Restaurant donated all the drinks and meals for the workers.

Koko has a small pen which is used to hold him while his pen is cleaned and during his checkups and when his doctor visits. While construction was taking place, Koko was kept in his holding pen and his regular pen was torn down. He enjoyed all the activity around him and even tried to play with the workers. While working on the concrete, one of the workers lost track of where Koko was, until he felt a gentle tug on his pants pocket. Koko was saying hello! He kept a wary distance from him after that!

After the final check for stray nails, filling the pool and placing food in his pen, Koko was let into his new home in October of 2002. He sniffed out every corner in his pen and new house and after a snort of approval he lay down and enjoyed his lunch.

Between all of the generous donations of materials and labor and the $6,000.00 raised from the donation box, all of the expenses were covered. The new pen is actually large enough to house 2 bear and Koko is enjoying it very much!

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