Barry Hoch stood close to the cage, holding a bunch of green grapes with one hand and poking a piece of the fruit through the chain links with the other.
The bear stuck out its tongue, greedily accepted the food and grunted for more.
“Here you go. Here you go,” the 65-year-old Hoch cooed to the hulking mammal.
For Hoch, it’s just an everyday task. He and his wife, Barbara, have kept Jakie, a 350-pound female American black bear, in the backyard of their home in Earl Township, Berks County, for 25 years.
The township has no ordinance prohibiting residents from owning exotic pets such as Jakie. Under state law, it’s perfectly legal to own bears, lions, tigers and the like as long as the owner obtains a permit from the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But that may change if a bill introduced in March wins support in the state Legislature.
If passed, the bill would prohibit private ownership of exotic wildlife, including bears, big cats, primates and other potentially dangerous animals. People who already have such pets would be allowed to keep them as long as they have a permit.
A similar bill in 2012 never made it to the Senate floor, said state Sen. Judy Schwank, a co-sponsor of the current bill.
“I think it’s cruel to house wild animals,” said Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat. “They are just not suited for living in confinement in a nonprofessional situation. This is why zoos were invented.”
Schwank said the legislation likely will make it through committee, but whether it’ll be voted on by the end of this year’s session is anyone’s guess.
Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said such a law has been a long time coming in Pennsylvania.
“These animals need specific care and treatment that the average person cannot provide,” she said. “These animals don’t belong in people’s basements, backyards.”
Thirty-three states have more stringent laws regarding ownership of exotic pets than Pennsylvania, Paquette said.
The state has made changes over the years. The game commission’s wildlife-possession permit system has become more stringent since it was instituted in the 1980s.
When the Hoches applied for a permit, they were told to build a cage large enough for the bear to live in comfortably – 12 feet high, 12 feet wide and 25 feet long. The cage is also required to have a bathtub for fresh water and an igloo-like brick structure in which Jakie hibernates during the winter.
There is no stipulation that the permit holder must notify neighbors, local law enforcement or schools that the animal lives nearby, according to the Humane Society.