After a 5-foot-tall, 280-pound black bear named Cindi kissed him on the lips in the MetraPark Expo Center, Bob Steele revealed the secret behind the smooch. 

"It's not luscious lips," Steele said. "It's called Skittles in my mouth." 

Steele and his three black bears, who climbed, posed and waved their paws, drew a crowd of around 50 people on Friday night for their final performance at the opening day of the 32nd Annual Great Rockies Sportshow. 

Though Skittles did the trick, Steele said Cindi would've preferred M&Ms. 

Barney, a 5-feet, 200-pound, 4-year-old black bear rescued out of Oregon a few years ago, started off the show taking treats from Steele's hand for "standing up like a big bear." 

These days Barney is the star of the show, Steele said. The former star, a 26-year-old named Andy, has retired in recent years due to arthritis and old age but still comes along when his owner goes traveling. Steele said that as long as Andy can get in and out of the trailer, he's welcome company on road trips.

As Barney and Cindi performed, Andy napped; Steele said he often naps after a meal. Feeding the three bears is no small task, with each requiring between 5 and 30 pounds of food a day depending on the time of year, Steele said. 

As if operating a restaurant, Steele said he buys fruit, vegetables, fish and other meat from wholesalers to help with the cost. 

It's possible the bears can smell Steele returning with a truckload of food before they see him. Bears generally have a sense of smell seven times stronger than bloodhounds and 21 times stronger than humans, he said. Bears have been documented smelling food from between four and five miles away, but Steele said under the right wind conditions he believes a bear can smell food from 20 miles away. 

Steele said he's worked with other kinds of bears, including grizzly and polar bears, since he began working with large mammals full time in 1977. Each type needs to be dealt with differently, he said.

Grizzly bears require more one-on-one attention because of their solitary nature, and polar bears need to be treated like both a bear and a tiger because of their strong carnivorous instincts, Steele said.

Steele said Montanans are generally more "bear aware" than the residents of other states where he takes his Texas-based traveling bear show. Still, Steele made sure to tell the audience about the tricks he showed them: "You don't want to try it out in the wild." 


Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.