By Danny Baggott @Dan_Baggie
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Videographer / director: Rodrigo Gomez
Producer: Danny Baggott, Ruby Coote
Editor: Sonia Estal
In the heart of Bearadise Ranch, Florida, Monica Welde and her son, Johnny IV, spend their days rolling around with bears that weigh up to 1,000lbs.
The Welde family have looked after grizzly bears, black bears and polar bears for the last 91 years – using their license to provide for those in need of a home.
But the family tradition came under threat last year when the senior member of the family and Monica’s husband, Johnny III, died of a heart attack just after he turned 60.
But with the help of her son, a devastated Monica has put her loss to one side so she could concentrate on continuing the family legacy and caring for their beloved pet bears.
Monica, 57, told Barcroft TV: “Last year, we lost my husband. The patriarch of our family. Husband, father and grandfather. The love of my life who was devoted to all, including my bears.
“It’s been a huge loss on our family and our bears.
“I know the bears miss him, they do notice his absence.
“But our son and I decided to continue the family legacy and go on for my husband.
“Right now, we have 14 bears. And do I prefer bears to humans? Well actually, sometimes I do.”
The grandfather of Johnny III introduced bears into the Welde family back in 1946.
Since then, they have appeared in movies for Walt Disney and have been trained for a number of television shows.
Johnny IV first came into contact with the potentially dangerous animals when he was just three years old – and he has always seen them as part of the family.
Johnny IV, 27, said: “Yeah, I’ve been around the bears since I was three.
“My Dad was my best friend, he taught me everything I know. We were extremely close and I plan on carrying on his legacy for as long as I’m alive.
“They live on the back of our property behind our main house.
“They are like family to me, I see them everyday so they’re just my siblings basically.
“To us, they are very safe. They are not big on strangers which is understandable. We have raised them, so to us they are very, very sweet.”
Monica continued: “Here at Bearadise Ranch our bears have natural habitats to come out and enjoy.
“They have a spring pond, we have pools, grass, trees.
“And our daily interaction with the bears is communication, loving, petting. They thrive on physical contact.
“That’s the greatest form of enrichment for the bears – the relationship we share with them which is based on mutual love and respect.”
Monica admits the bears have never attacked anyone in the time they have been in their family.
But they do have to take the necessary precautions, just in case.
“My bears have never attacked anybody,” Monica said.
“I do have a few scars from their claws. That’s natural, they are very powerful animals.
“We have contingency plans in place if there was ever any problem with the bears.
“But as far as stitches go, I have worked with bears for 37 years and I have all my fingers so it’s a good track record.”
Monica is now confident that she will take care of the bears right up until she is no longer physically able to.
And she has every faith that Johnny IV will carry on the Welde family name when this time comes.
Monica said: “I have spent 37 years with bears and I plan to as long as I am physically able.
“I will work with the bears until I grow very old and I feel confident they will be taken care of after I’m gone.”