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Nature Havens accuses state of bear abuse

DEEP says they were forced to scare the fear of humans back into bears because of alleged baiting by Nature Havens.

HARTLAND, Conn. — The man who runs a controversial wildlife business in Hartland is accusing the state of torturing bears and trying to put him out of business. The state says they are trying to help the bears recover from the damage Nature Havens allegedly inflicted.

In his first interview, Mark Brault, the owner of Nature Havens in Hartland talked to FOX61's Matt Caron. Brault charged people to view wildlife on his Hi-View Drive property until July after the town issued a cease-and-desist order. Brault calls the business ‘educational eco-tourism.’ "They get to view wildlife and learn about it and learn some new solutions and new ideas that they have not heard," said Brault.

The town of Hartland cited that Brault's property was zoned only for residential use and contained illegal structures like a hunting blind and a storage shed with a washbasin and bathroom. Fred Jones, the President of the Hartland Land Trust said, "If he feels we’re putting him out of business. Unfortunately for him, it’s an illegal business, to begin with."

The Hartland Land Trust owns the abutting property to Nature Havens. Brault claims they are conspiring with the state to shut him down, and in doing so, are harassing bears. Video captured shows wildlife officials banging on a steel drum culvert bear trap with a black bear inside. State wildlife officials can be seen yelling at the bear, sounding an air horn, prodding it with a pole, and shooting at it with rubber bullets and paintballs. "This is really cruelty on an unprecedented level. Honestly," said Brault.

FOX61 reached out to Annie Hornish, state director of the Humane Society of the United States for Connecticut who said, "Baiting and then restraining bears in culvert traps for unreasonably long time periods with no food or water at this critical time of year when bears need to fatten up for winter to survive, that’s cruelty."

But the Hartland Land Trust says the bears are nuisance bears and are habituated to humans. "They do trap the bear and then they release the bear. They make it an uncomfortable environment for the bear so they don’t return to where the feeding stations are on Mark Brault’s property," remarked Jones.

Nature Havens denies the feeding allegations. "We do not agree with bear-baiting," said Brault. "I do experiment with bear-proofing bird feeders so that’s something that I’m working on but other than that, no."

Across the neighborhood, residents have posted their own makeshift signs showing their disapproval with bear-baiting. Brault said residents didn't even know their business existed until the town made a big deal about it. "We don’t disturb our neighbors," said Brault.

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The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told FOX61 the tactics they use have been tried and true for years. It's called 'aversive conditioning.' Jenny Dickson is the Director of the Wildlife Division for DEEP. "When a bear has lost its fear of people what we want to try and do is re-instill some of that image fear into the bear. Part of how we do that is by scaring it. So yes, without any context it does look kind of scary," said Dickson. "We're trying to save the lives of bears."

Nature Havens has also been accused of trying to conceal their collaboration with Dr. Charles Munn. Munn is a controversial scientist who FOX61 has been following for more than a year when he was searching for properties to conduct diversionary feeding experiments. FOX61 asked Mark Brault if Munn is involved in the Nature Havens business. "Charles Munn’s involvement in Nature Havens is merely to help me with the academic structure of the business...For me, it was easier to give Mr. Munn a stipend. A percentage of the business. But make no mistake about this. This is my business," said Brault.

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Brault contends that Nature Havens is educational he hopes to open again next year. "It will be something that I think they really enjoy for families and for nature lovers," he said.