It's almost 2:30 p.m., and two large black bears are ready for an afternoon snack. As usual, Bob Miner has brought them some yummy peanut M&Ms.
The bears are glad to see him – so glad in fact, they're not fussy about how Mr. Miner likes to feed them: from his lips.
Black bears are extremely powerful and potentially very dangerous. They can weigh as much as a duo of sumo wrestlers, and they have big, long claws that look capable of carving open the cab of a pickup truck. But they also have tongues and lips that are well suited for gently smooching away a chocolate-covered peanut.
It's another day at DEW Animal Kingdom & Sanctuary in Mount Vernon, Maine. And while visitors are free to wander around by themselves, the cognoscenti know to be on Miner's twice-daily narrated tours.
DEW stands for "Domestic, Exotic, and Wild," and so along with native black bears they see alpacas, ring-tailed lemurs, native bobcats, and scores of other species.
Miner, and his wife, Julie, have a special relationship with all of their more than 200 animals. So Miner can get really close to the tiger cage, and while he and a Bengal with a head that looks the size of a golf cart rub against each other, he'll say, "Huggies!"
So how did all these animals from around the world end up living with the Miners in the woods of central Maine?
Back in 1980 Miner was a struggling, profoundly unhappy US veteran, seemingly overcome with health issues related to his 16 years in the military. Because he also was having problems relating to people, he began to collect animals. Cows, sheep, goats, and pigs were first. Gradually, he started to take in nondomestic animals – particularly ones that needed a home or they would be "destroyed."
Meanwhile, Miner himself started to heal.
Early on, for example, a zoo gave him a baby wallaby whose mother had died and who itself was not expected to survive. But Miner managed to save the animal.
Today some DEW residents come from zoos that can't provide a home for a particular animal. Others come from people who have made impractical decisions about who should join their family – in other words, exotic pets.
"The cutest thing in the world is an African lion" cub, Miner says. "But what happens when they are a year old?" If it's a female living in a 10-story apartment building in New York City, who is out of control because her instinct to hunt is kicking in, they end up living at DEW.
Miner started welcoming visitors to see his sanctuary after a school asked to make a visit. Then, in 1993, when he was again struggling with health issues, a woman named Julie started volunteering.
In the years since Julie married Bob and his wildlife sanctuary, DEW has moved and gotten bigger, and adopted more animals, in part because now there are are two people to do the work of feeding the animals, watering them, cleaning their enclosures, and maintaining the 42-acre property.
DEW also invites volunteers to help. But especially during the long colder months from mid-October through May, when DEW is closed to the public, the work mostly is done by the Miners.
Not all the animals are rescues, Julie says. "Sometimes we purposely look for and buy. [Recently we decided] to add a couple of Canada Lynx for our education program. It's something we have in Maine."
And, of course, some animals have babies.
A walk around DEW is a far different experience than visiting a carefully paved city zoo, with the chimpanzees right next to the orangutans. Instead, a dirt pathway meanders through the woods, with enclosures spontaneously offering, for example, a small field of donkeys and then, nearby, perhaps a cougar.
The enclosures are rustic and inscribed with hand-made signs – "feed me," "don't feed me." Others warn against teasing the animals or messing with their cages. But there also are very professional-looking information panels.
The Miners share their knowledge of animals generously with visitors, including school groups. Volunteers learn as well.
Every year, for example, students from Kents Hill School, a nearby prep school, volunteer for DEW. This year, according to Patrick McInerney, head of school, students "scoop[ed] up poop" from enclosures, helped build animal cages, and constructed a new lion enclosure. They also got to ask questions of Miner.
"He's very knowledgeable [and also quite] a colorful character," says Mr. McInerney.
A visitor recently marveled to the Miners at how they could do their rigorous routine 365 days a year – without a vacation.
"Bob and I both consider this a permanent vacation. This isn't a job. This is our life," Julie says. "There have been days when [an animal we've had for years] dies, and we look at each other and think 'Why are we doing this?' And then we look around [and realize] this is why we're doing this. For all these other animals."