Joaquin Phoenix, PETA Fight for Release of Real-Life Bears that Inspired Disney's Brother Bear
Joaquin Phoenix is calling on a Florida animal park, Bearadise Ranch, to move the two bears that inspired the 2003 Disney film Brother Bear to a sanctuary.
Bearadise Ranch, which opened in 1926, states on its website that its mission is to "educate and generate public awareness for habitat preservation and conservation for all bear species." According to a post from the organization, two of their bear residents — Bruno and Bambi — were used to inspire the main characters in the animated Disney film Brother Bear. Now, the "famous" bears and 11 others that live at Bearadise Ranch are involved in a traveling show, performing tricks at different fairs, festivals, and events upon request.
Since learning from PETA that Bruno and Bambi are being used in live entertainment, Phoenix, 46, who voiced the lead character of Kenai in Brother Bear, has reached out to Bearadise Ranch, asking that the bears be retired to an accredited sanctuary.
The actor, who lives a vegan lifestyle and is a vocal animal activist, wrote a letter to Bearadise Ranch owner Monica Welde urging her to recognize that the bears are being "robbed of everything that's natural and important to them" and "deserve better" than being on the road for shows.
"You know firsthand that bears are curious, complex animals who love to climb, dig, forage, and play," the Oscar winner wrote in his letter, obtained by PEOPLE from PETA. "Their acute sense of smell and plate-sized paws evolved so that they could seek out mates and food across vast distances, but those carefully honed traits are wasted on the county fair circuit, where they're relegated to transport cages when they're not pulling hoops over their heads and carrying basketballs around in front of crowds of strangers."
He continued, "Will you please consider putting an end to the tricks and the travel and give all the bears at your facility the chance just to live like bears? If you want to do what's truly the best thing for them, let me help you make arrangements to get them transferred to an accredited sanctuary."
Phoenix's letter received the support of PETA, who criticized the park's actions and called for the end of the bears' involuntary role in show business.
On Friday, Welde released a statement on the matter, which she said was on behalf of the bears at Bearadise Ranch.
"To PETA, and Joaquin Phoenix, Leave us alone!" she wrote on Facebook. "We do not want to be taken away from our loving home with the Welde family. We have been a part of their family for 92 years. They love us, give us proper care and a natural habitat to enjoy, and we share a special bond with them of mutual love and respect that enriches us. We are fed every day and get veterinarian checkups several times a year."
She continued, "With you, we are certain to die. With the Weldes, we are free! Free from hunger and starvation. Free from disease. Free from poachers, and free to give love and be loved. Stop threatening and terrorizing our family!" adding that the sanctuary is legally licensed by state and federal agencies.
Bearadise Ranch has yet to respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.