Odd Job: Bear trainer - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Job: Bear trainer

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Some kids grow up with cats and dogs. Maureen Clark had bear cubs.

"It just seemed normal because that's just the way it was. I mean we grew up seeing them," said Clark, bear trainer.

The Clarks grew up not just seeing them, but living with North American black bears. They shared breakfast in the kitchen and playtime in the living room.

Baby Moxie, a bear abandoned by its mother, convinced Clark she wanted to join the family business.

"She had lung worms. She had pneumonia. She was starving. She only weighed 5 pounds when the Vermont Fish and Wildlife authorities gave her to us," said Clark.

They're not rehabilitators, but a family of bear trainers from New Hampshire that nursed the cub back to health. Clark taught Moxie some of her first tricks.

"I'm not really a performer. I love the bears themselves. I love talking to them. I love seeing their personalities," said Clark.

Clark entered the ring in 1988, but her training started much earlier. At 6, she and her brother Murray had their first jobs as show helpers. 

Clark's Trading Post is a family affair. Her grandparents launched the Lincoln attraction in 1928 with Eskimo sled dogs. But after World War II interest was waning. Clark's dad and uncle returned from war determined to save the business. Their first bear show debuted in 1949. 

"One special bear, Ebony, would come out from an enclosure and run to the center of the ring and perform just at arm's length away practically from the audience," said Clark.

Clark says she learned everything she knows from them. Since then, the show and tricks have evolved.

Clark and her brother now work with seven bears, captivating crowds with two to three shows a day between May and October.

They've taught 12-year-old Pemi to play Frisbee and 5-year-old Tiny Tula to shoot hoops.

The secret behind their success? Black-BERRY ice cream and...

"I've got some crumbled up Fig Newtons here," said Clark.

Clark says there's no forcing a bear.

"Not the way we work. We don't have any weapons. It's a spoon and an ice cream cone and what we have in our pockets," said Clark.

It's usually a mixture of nuts and dried fruit. She says those goodies are incentive enough. Training starts when they're cubs. Tricks take about 1,000 hours to perfect and don't come without a few bites and scratches. It's a dangerous gig and should not be attempted by anyone without extensive training.

"There have been serious injuries over the years, at times, but we've all got all our fingers and toes and we're still here doing it," said Clark.

Occasionally Clark says her work attracts the attention of animal activists. But she denies exploiting the bears and says they live a comfortable life on the compound. 

Clark estimates there are only six to eight bear trainers left in the country and hopes her shows instill a healthy respect for the creatures while highlighting their natural intelligence. 

"There's something very special about bears, they're just so intense," said Clark.

In the wild she says North American Black Bears survive four to six years. But Clarks' bears break records living into their 20s and 30s. Bears like Victoria, now retired from the limelight she spends her days painting in the shade with her best buddy.

"Victoria is just one of my very closest friends. My best friend really, she knows it too. I tell her all the time," said Clark.

It's an Odd Job most people couldn't bear to do. 

The bear show at Clark's Trading Post runs through Oct. 12.

Do you have an Odd Job or know someone who does? Send Jennifer an email to news@wcax.com.

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