JUNEAU -- Hunting guide Les Kinnear's plan to turn a disused Sitka pulp mill
into a zoo for problem brown bears has plenty of detractors.
And that makes the case of the wandering pig that much more intriguing.
Recently, a single pig was found outside a waist-high plywood pen and wandering
around inside one of two 192-foot-diameter concrete tanks where Kinnear hopes
one day to house large bruins.
Kinnear formed a nonprofit group called Kootznahoo-Fortress of the Bears in January
with the idea of converting the two large clarifier tanks -- with walls a minimum
of 12 feet high -- into a zoo for brown bears that have shown a penchant for
digging into garbage.
But first, Kinnear must prove he is capable of handling animals in order to get
the necessary state and federal permits. So he's keeping pigs in plywood pens
inside the tanks as part of a demonstration project that will be monitored by
The proposed bear display has drawn the threat of litigation from an environmental
group and has generated numerous letters to the local paper from people who fear
it will turn into a carnival for tourists.
And it raises questions in the recent case of the liberated pig. Sitka police
have no leads, but some people think it's more than a joke carried out by bored
"They feel pretty confident that somebody had to assist the pig out of the enclosure," Sitka
Police Chief Bob Gorder said.
Kenyon Fields, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, suspects
it could be the work of someone opposed to the project.
"It's likely not just a teenage prank and more likely represents the disagreement
with the project that's been echoing around town," Fields said.
But the chief is not willing to go that far yet and hasn't ruled out the possibility
that the pig simply squeezed out of the poorly constructed plywood pen.
To get his permits for the Fortress of the Bears, Kinnear must devise a plan
to ensure animal welfare and safety and prepare for the possibility that a bear
"We've taken additional measures to provide security," Kinnear said, dismissing
the seriousness of the recent pig escape.
He contends that criticism of the project has come from a "very small, very vocal" segment
of the town.
The Sitka Assembly has provided $25,000 for the project that Kinnear must match
with $75,000. It could cost as much as $250,000 to get the project started, Kinnear
The borough also agreed to a 10-year lease for the 2.5-acre site with two five-year
options. Eventually, the facility would pay $36,000 a year in rent, said Sitka
Administrator Hugh Bevan.
Kinnear anticipates having between six and eight juvenile brown bears housed
in the two large tanks, connecting the enclosures with a 6-inch-diameter pipe
left over from the Alaska Pulp Mill. Water would run through the pipe, and the
bears would have foliage in their tanks. There would be viewing platforms for
"We anticipate once we are open to the public, we will generate enough revenue
to make this self-sustaining," Kinnear said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a Sitka environmental group, has vowed to
fight the project.
The facility would be next to a noisy glass crusher that is on site and the holding
tanks are too small to accommodate the number of bears Kinnear plans to house,
said the center's Corrie Bosman.
Also, a fertile female bear inside the tanks would attract wild bears to the
grounds, Bosman said.
Diana Weinhardt, curator of large mammals at the Houston Zoo and a member of
the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Bear Taxon Advisory Group, visited
the site at the request of the state. Weinhardt told the Daily News that the
project is feasible but needs public support.
Also, the Angoon Native Corp. has told Kinnear's group to drop the name Kootznahoo
-- an English derivation of the Tlingit phrase "Fortress of the Bears" -- from
its project. Kinnear said he would.
Kinnear is still clearing debris and making modifications to the site of the
proposed bear pens. Once that is complete, the pigs will be allowed to roam free
inside the concrete enclosures and the one-year demonstration project will begin.
"Not only do we see how they handle the animals, we look at various educational
programs," said Ryan Scott, permit biologist for the state Department of Fish
Cruise ships bring about 700,000 visitors to Southeast Alaska annually, more
than the population of the entire state.
"We anticipate this may be a feature of their itineraries," Kinnear said.