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 state.
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 youth.
"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's 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 might escape.
"We've taken additional measures to provide security," Kinnear said, dismissing the seriousness of the recent pig escape.
It's his contention 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 said.
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 housing between six and eight juvenile brown bears in the two large tanks, connecting the enclosures with a six-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 the public.
"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 located 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 Anchorage Daily News that the project is feasible but needs public support.
Also, the Angoon Native Corporation 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 do that.
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 and Game. "What is the public going to get out of this?"
Cruise ships bring about 700,000 visitors to Southeast Alaska annually - more than the combined population of the entire state.
"We anticipate this may be a feature of their itineraries," Kinnear said.
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