dated Jan 17, 2020;Posted Jan 17, 2020
Dillan the bear at Union County Sportsmen's Club
By John Luciew | [email protected]
MILLMONT, Pa. -- Dillan, the blubbery black bear that became a cause celebre for animal rights group PETA, is soon heading off to an undisclosed sanctuary far from the sportsmen’s club that had him caged for nearly two decades.
But officers and members of the Union County Sportsmen’s Club Inc. are defensive, sad and still smarting over the entire situation.
They say they became the hunted after PETA provoked a backlash of scorn from bear lovers, disrupting the club’s otherwise idyllic nature retreat and wildlife sanctuary on 200 acres here.
Even as they prepare to bid a reluctant goodbye to their bear, club members and officials are quick to point out that they aren’t giving PETA what it really wanted, which was Dillan, himself.
“PETA did not win,” declared club president Orville Spangler, better known by his now-ironic childhood nickname, “Bear.”
“We’re trying to stick by our guns because we’re right,” he added in an exclusive PennLive interview Friday.
“We run a good sanctuary here,” Spangler insisted. "But we got to the point where we are tired of what’s going on. They (PETA) aren’t going to go away. We don’t want to get rid of the bear, but we’re getting rid of the bear.”
Club officials said PETA wanted Dillan to move to that group’s own sanctuary in Colorado. Instead, the club reached an agreement with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which is relocating Dillan to an “undisclosed” sanctuary next week.
“Everybody hates to see him go,” Spangler said of Dillan. “Hate to do it.”
In the end, however, the club became a cornered animal from all the controversy.
WATCH: Girding for Dillan’s emotional goodbye
Club members and officials described a state of near-relentless wrath ever since PETA put the quiet, hard-to-find club on the national map back in July.
Spangler said the entire controversy was triggered when a local resident concerned for the obese bear’s health contacted the animal rights group.
PETA contended Dillan has suffered from years of a sedentary life in his close-quarters enclosure and from being overfed at the club, where waves of curious kids could roll food pellets into his cage.
As a result, PETA said Dillan’s health records show he’s morbidly obese and has dental issues and other physical symptoms.
Spangler countered that Dillan’s health and diet have been monitored all along by both a local vet and USDA professionals.
“He’s not a small bear. He’s a huge bear,” Spangler conceded on the matter of Dillan’s ballooning weight, which hasn’t been accurately recorded in years. “What are you going to do? He’s in a sanctuary and you feed him and he don’t get the exercise.”
Most of the public backlash over the bear has taken the form of expletive-filled calls that have come in by the score each day, until shaken club staff members were afraid to answer the phone. Among the calls have been two bomb threats, club officials say, including one this week after actor Alec Baldwin became Dillan’s latest liberal champion.
“The phone calls were terrible,” Spangler said. “They just kept calling and calling and calling.”
Billboards along busy Routes 11/15 feature a photo of the forlorn bear in his cramped cage, along with the business-killing slogan: “Dillan is suffering. Please don’t stop here.”
That got the attention of the local chamber of commerce, which recognized the entire region risked being branded “animal unfriendly” unless Dillan was moved to greener pastures – and soon.
“We were receiving a lot of bad publicity,” noted Bob Garrett, who’s both a club member and president of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“The world changed,” he said. “It used to be acceptable in zoos to put them in cages. It really is not considered acceptable anymore. His habitat would not be a cage with a concrete floor.”
Rebecca Smudzinski, a captive wildlife specialist who has been working on the issue for PETA, said the organization is “very optimistic about this news” from the USDA of Dillan’s pending relocation but was still waiting for more information Friday.
Still, if it were put up for local vote, Dillan wouldn’t be going anywhere, Garrett said.
“PETA did not affect the average person in the Susquehanna Valley,” he said. “They did not move our opinion one notch. To try to vilify the members of the Union County Sportsmen’s Club … is just inappropriate. And if I could speak to somebody from PETA, I would say, ‘please take the billboards down.’"
Indeed, Dillan did more than his share to advance the cause of animal appreciation long before PETA got involved, Garrett said. Generations of local children have grown up getting one of their first lessons in wildlife preservation from a visit to see Dillan and his animal friends at the club.
“Dillan the bear is beloved by generations of children in this area,” Garrett said. “It was truly a teachable moment. Generations of children learned about interacting with animals.”
School field trips and Boy Scout visits brought youngsters by the bus-full to delight at seeing and feeding Dillan firsthand. The sedentary senior citizen bear certainly has the giant girth, proving he never missed a meal – or snack.
“Kids come here from school -- they bring them up, busloads of them,” Spangler said. “We give them ice cream. It’s just wonderful. It’s a wonderful place.”
Dillan’s departure will be a somber goodbye for many here. But hopefully not a tragic one.
However, there’s serious concerns over whether Dillan, who Garrett estimated was 35 years old, will survive being uprooted and relocated from his long-time home.
“I really think for a lot of families and a lot of children in this valley, they’re very concerned about moving Dillan because some vets are saying he won’t survive the trip,” Garrett. “We all would like Dillan to spend his last remaining years as comfortably as possible.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the group’s caged menagerie, which includes foul, pheasants, turkey, white-tail deer and even a bobcat, will remain at the rural club, bar, restaurant, camping area and shooting range that boasts 4,800 dues-paying members from 35 states.
“It’s not going to change the club. We’re not going to let it,” Spangler vowed.
Yet, in wake of the PETA-produced wrath, the zoo area was strung with yellow police tape and marked with “No Trespassing” signs promising prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.
Despite the unsightly barricade, Spangler gave a PennLive reporter and photographer a tour of the animal cages.
Alas, the bear who brought all the unwanted controversy to the hard-to-find rural club, wouldn’t come out of his concrete cubby hole.
Showing he’s no fool, Dillan had blocked the opening with a discarded Christmas tree to keep out the 25-degree cold.
Amid all the brouhaha, the bear didn’t want to be disturbed.