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Adorable Bison Video Draws Attention To Animal Cruelty Accusations

03/16/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2015

A seemingly adorable, funny viral video of a bison, or American buffalo, licking a woman's arm has sparked a debate over whether the bison and other animals living at the same farm are being treated properly.

The video, which 28-year-old Seattle resident Caroline Walker Evans uploaded to YouTube earlier this month, shows Evans laughing as the bison sticks its head through a car window to eat a piece of bread. Evans took the video during her February trip to Olympic Game Farm, a facility in Sequim, Washington, where visitors can see critters such as lions, wolves, bears, yaks, bison and llamas up close and are invited to feed some animals bread.

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Photo credit: Krystal Sterling

Evans, who described herself as a “huge animal lover,” told The Huffington Post that while she generally enjoyed her visit to the farm, she thought some of the animals appeared to be living in less-than-ideal conditions. She noted that many animals, including the tigers, wolves and lions, didn't seem to have adequate living space.

Evans is not the first person to express such concerns.

"We've received a lot of complaints over the years," Rachel Bjork, board president of the Northwest Animal Rights Network, told HuffPost. Bjork said NARN members drove through the facility two years ago to take a video at the behest of a national animal welfare group that had concerns about the facility.

"It's incredibly boring [for the animals]. They don't have much enrichment," she said. "Big cats were in small cages. They're just standing there in their little pens."

Robert Beebe, who has been the president of Olympic Game Farm since 2008, told HuffPost that these assessments are inaccurate. He said that each predator has a sheltered enclosure of about 200 square feet that is easily visible to visitors who drive through. Behind each of these these enclosures, he said, each big cat and wolf has around 2,000 square feet to run and play, but this area is not visible to those who drive through the facility. In the bigger enclosures, he said, the animals have logs and stumps that they can lay on or scratch, as well as water pools in the spring and summer.

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Photo credit: Robert Beebe / Olympic Game Farm

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Photo credit: Robert Beebe / Olympic Game Farm

But both Evans and 27-year-old Krystal Sterling, who visited the farm in November, told HuffPost that the big cats seemed to be anxiously pacing back and forth inside the smaller enclosures.

"That's an indicator for stress," Susan Bass, public relations director for Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary for big cats, told HuffPost. "If they don't have a place to hide like a den, there'll be a lot of pacing. [For example,] when zoos are open for visiting hours, they have the animals where they have to be on display, and it leads to pacing."

Bass said it was odd that the animals would be out in the visible areas pacing if they had easy access to so much room out back. She added that her group, located in Tampa, Florida, occasionally receives complaints about the Olympic Game Farm and requests from visitors to "rescue" the animals there.

Beebe said that the animals are usually in the smaller shelters when visitors come to the game farm is because the shelters are shady spots where the animals like to relax. Since the big cats are nocturnal, he said, they lie out in their shelters during the day and are more active in their larger play areas at night.

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Robert Beebe / Olympic Game Farm

Though large grazing animals like yaks, llamas, bison and deer have plenty of room to roam around, visitors and animal welfare groups alike have taken issue with Olympic Game Farm's practice of encouraging visitors to feed bread to those animals and to the bears.

“Whole-wheat bread is simply not the natural diet of bison or any other wild animal,” Adam M. Roberts, CEO of animal advocacy group Born Free USA, told HuffPost. “Bison should be allowed to forage for their own diet -- one that is optimal for their digestion and health -- on their own terms in the wild, not be fed processed items by intrusive strangers who drive through the enclosure.”

Bjork agreed. "It’s like potato chips," she said. "They shouldn’t be eating a lot of [bread]."

Beebe countered that the bread does not make up the animals’ entire diet. He said it is a perfectly acceptable snack, and referenced guidelines from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that, in part, oversees wildlife management.

“It has never been determined by USDA APHIS that bread is ‘unhealthy,’” he said. “Whole wheat bread is made from...wheat and grains? Pasture animals eat grass. Bears are omnivores and eat grass, too, at times. Yaks, llamas, deer all eat grass. Bread isn't fed to the cats and wolves.”

However, after a routine inspection of Olympic Game Farm, USDA APHIS issued a report in July 2014 that indicates the agency does take issue with the animals being fed bread.

“USDA realizes this additional food is more a 'snack' and not the animals daily diet. However, it is strongly advised that a gradual transition to a more species appropriate snack be implemented," the report reads. "Suggest vegetables, grain, forage, etc. ... This transition should be started as soon as possible."

"It's just a note, not a requirement," Beebe said of the USDA APHIS recommendation. He said the man who made the note "is one of the inspectors that, even though there’s nothing wrong, he still has to say something about something.” Beebe told HuffPost he does allow visitors to bring fruits and vegetables to feed to some animals, as long as they are inspected first, but has no plans to phase out bread because "no one has proven that we need to."

The USDA APHIS did not return a request for comment.

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An overhead shot of the farm, taken in 2010 (Ben Mater/NARN)

Some visitors also noted they were concerned about the well-being of the bears at the facility.

"They had several [bears] in one pen together and another separated," Sterling said. "There was hardly any grass to speak of and the one solitary bear was just in a big wet mud pit without any grass." She said the bears appeared to be "lethargic and overweight and just miserable."

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Photo credit: Krystal Sterling

Beebe contends that comments like this are based on a poor grasp of bear biology.

“The complaint about bears being fat and lethargic is based on not understanding the metabolism and eating criteria of bears,” he said. “November and December is ‘eat everything’ time to ready for winter hibernation. Bears put on fat and grow winter fur coats. [In] January and February, bears rarely eat anything and do a lot of napping.”

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Robert Beebe / Olympic Game Farm

The game farm started out in the 1950s as a home for animal actors that appeared in Disney films, but since 1973 has been a “private wildlife organization” open to the public. Today, some animals on Olympic Game Farm are descendants of the animal actors originally housed there, while others are rescues or animals that have been retired from the entertainment industry.

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