Every year we are privileged to care for many, many animals. I am often asked what my favorite is, and, although I love most species of animals from reptiles to birds to mammals, there have always been several that I could answer that either fascinate me just a little more, have endearing or interesting qualities or something that just gives them a unique quality….. but this summer I can say, unequivocally, that my favorite animals are now bears.
In April, we received two very small cubs, just under 10 pounds each, a brother and sister, that were found by members of the public wandering separately within a ¼ mile of each other. Handled and even publicly displayed, they were retrieved and delivered to the PWRC by Troy and Nancie Schoeneberger, our capture and transport volunteers. They were stabilized, fed well to begin regaining weight and were removed by the PA Game Commission in order to attempt to foster them with another sow with cubs. A daring, and not-always-successful method, post-den fostering is a “better than nothing” attempt at allowing cubs a second chance for life in the wild, but most sows are not really that accepting of foreign cubs once the denning season is over. We would find that out six weeks later, when the little male cub, emaciated and wandering for weeks, was hit by a car and killed. His sister was found in someone’s back yard, weighing what she did six weeks prior…. skin and bones. The Wildlife Conservation Officer responding to that call met us (we just happened to be within ten minutes away while running an errand in Pike Cty) and the little sow cub was back in our hands. We know it was the same cub- she had been ear-tagged by the PGC upon her initial release.
Soon after the first two cubs left us, a sow was hit by a car and had to be euthanized by the Conservation officer. Her two cubs, also a male and female, scrambled up a tree. A construction worker retrieved them and the pair was delivered to the PWRC. They cried all night. Yes, bear cubs cry, they grieve, and they get lonely. Their comfort, however, does not lie with us, it lies in providing them with a cozy private place with natural scents, darkness, and quiet, and the comfort of each other. Once they quieted down and began to eat, they were released into our stockade bear pen.
Within a few weeks in June of the two bears’ arrival, another sow became the victim of a vehicle and her triplets were now orphaned. On his own time, the Conservation Officer and his deputy delivered the cubs and they joined our other two in the bear enclosure. Five cubs all under 25 pounds were now running, playing, climbing, eating, sleeping and swimming in an enclosure built for 2-3 cubs.
A week after all five cubs were settled in the little girl cub from April was brought back. Alone for maybe five weeks, she had managed to survive, but weighed only 10 pounds, about the same as she did six weeks earlier. She was weak and thin, but ate well and within a week was ready to join the other cubs. Would she be accepted? Would she get her share of food? Our enclosure is purposely built to provide as hands-off an experience as wildlife can get. Water for drinking and bathing is controlled from outside the pen. We entered twice a day, morning and evening, to put food in, and take leftovers and excrement out. There is an artificial den in the pen and all the bears would hide during the time we were working inside. A three by four foot one-way glass allowed us to watch the cubs without their knowledge, but if a problem arose, it would be very difficult with this hands-off approach to raising the cubs, to do much about it. I contacted several nationally-known bear rehabilitation facilities, and learned that the little female should be introduced with no problems at all. We took a deep breath, and in she went, with her new siblings that weighed more than twice her meager 12 or 13 pounds.
“Little girl” bear not only was accepted by her new siblings, she was coddled and spoiled by them. She ate what she wanted, jumped all over them, and was given what seemed to us to be preferential treatment and tolerance. Now, with six bears in a relatively small enclosure, the main tasks were feeding, cleaning the pen and bathing and drinking containers, and monitoring their growth and behavior without having any contact with them at all. By far the biggest task was feeding… and six growing cubs needed lots of calories. Normally, mainly natural foods are provided for wildlife at the PWRC, but there was an eventual finish line for these bears, and we were approaching it quickly. Despite the protocol utilized by all the large and recognized bear rehab centers to release cubs in autumn or even hibernating them, ours were given a release date in August. In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers until the spring of their second year, but they certainly CAN survive if they lose their mother before winter. The biggest struggles are not the lack of a mother to provide food, but rather, they need to be large enough to have some protection against the male bears, called boars, and to be fat enough to survive in a den all winter without eating. So feed them we did. We were assured that non-native foods were ok as long as they were not released near access to these human-related food sources. So, the cubs had fruits- melons, apples, grapes, and berries. The cheapest dry dog food available was fed because it contains mostly grains, but has good protein and calcium levels, pastries and breads, sunflower and other seeds, and nuts of any kind
provided fats and calories for rapid growth.
Obtaining all this food took an entire community. Individuals and businesses donated bags of nuts, cases of fruit and bags of dog food. The cubs grew, and August came. The date was set