At age 7, Justin Barker turned his bedroom into a rain forest. Passionate about animal rights, at 13 he quit eating meat. By 14, his documentation of poor conditions at the Sacramento Zoo had led to a failed accreditation review and a threatened lawsuit for slander from its director.
“I was a lonely, sad kid,” says Barker, now 39. “I cared about animals. I wanted to help them in any way I could. And I could identify with being bullied. The idea that animals were stuck in cages, with kids mocking them, pointing and screaming at them—that really bothered me.”
It wasn’t long before the Elk Grove boy launched Citizens Lobbying for Animals in Zoos and found a new mission: the rescue and relocation of Brutus and Ursula, two sibling black bears languishing in a poorly built enclosure at a defunct zoo in Roseville.
His seemingly futile quest to liberate the bears, a journey that also released his queer identity, is the subject of “Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free,” published in June by Brutus & Ursula LLC. Barker launched the book virtually in June with a foreword written by his idol, renowned chimpanzee researcher Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.
“Bear Boy” already has captured the imagination of aspiring animal rights advocates and other young activists, as well as people struggling with their sexual or gender identity. Reviewers have lauded the young adult book’s true-life storytelling and empowering messages.
Barker, now a San Francisco-based television producer, writer and activist, was a relentlessly bullied child in the 1990s. His parents indulged his passion for books and magazines about animals, as well as his stubborn determination to improve their treatment. He uncovered insufficient conditions for the polar bears, hyenas, Yosemite toads and other critters at the Sacramento Zoo, documenting them in an explosive letter to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. He learned the power of the press when he read in The Sacramento Bee that the zoo’s accreditation was at risk. When the zoo director later threatened to sue Barker for slander, his parents urged him to back off.
Soon enough, he’d been tipped off to the plight of Brutus and Ursula. The Roseville zoo had long been shuttered, but the bears remained in a dangerously flood-prone enclosure with little else but food. Barker was adamant that the bears needed a new, safe home. When he learned that the Folsom Zoo was willing to take them if he could raise $250,000 to build their enclosure, he set to work leveraging local media, haranguing elected officials and engaging celebrity support.
“Who knew it would take three years?” he says. “But I wasn’t going to stop until those bears were out of that condition.”
Barker hopes his journey ignites in others the kind of commitment to action that led to his own triumphs. “I love to inspire people to understand that by being engaged in changing the world, they too will be empowered.”