Thursday, December 1, 2016

A bucketload of happiness

Carrots are an abomination. At least that’s what Holly, one of the orphaned bear cubs I look after, seems to think. She has yet to eat a single one since she arrived at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter on November 14th, while Berbere, my other furry charge, devours carrots as soon as he gets them. Bears, it turns out, don’t just have their own personality but also individual food preferences.

I ponder this fact every morning while I prepare the food buckets for my bears. As 31 of the orphaned cubs have started to hibernate, we are now feeding just the eight underweight black bear cubs, the little grizzly, our deer fawns, and the cougar and lynx who are the only animals that live permanently at the shelter. We also fill two food buckets for moose and deer who were rehabilitated here and occasionally drop by in the wintertime. This is one of the many ways wildlife rehabilitation helps researchers: the visiting ungulates allow long-term studies, for example on ticks and other parasites.

We chop and peel, filling the bear and ungulate buckets with fruit and vegetables given to the shelter by the local supermarket and individuals. We cheer when we find a large selection of our bears’ favourite foods in the donations – we’re as happy as the animals when we can serve them up a meal they’ll absolutely love.   

Today we’re not just taking up food buckets to the group of non-hibernating bears. Four large garbage cans’ worth of raked-up leaves will provide enrichment for the cubs, whom we also give rotten logs at times so they can look for insect larvae, check out new smells and have something to play with.

Our first stop, however, is the deer enclosure. For weeks, the fawns have already been free to come and go during the day. This slow release allows them to explore life in freedom, while the nighttime lock-up keeps them safe from predators. Deer and moose aren’t fussy eaters. Our two fawns’ only complaint is that they are now being weaned, and for the first time we’ve arrived without their beloved milk bottles. Friday looks up at me with big liquid eyes and tries to suckle on my jacket, while Trooper circles around us, bumping our legs with his head in the hopes of triggering a milk flow. He is powerful – I’m happy I’m not a doe. They soon settle for the familiar bucket of vegetables, and after putting out the moose buckets we carry on to the bears.

The cubs know the routine by now: cleaning comes before feeding. Holly ducks into her den box while I shovel poop, wet pieces of straw and bits of leftover fruit into the cleaning bucket. Then I spread piles of leaves for her. When I leave the enclosure she quickly darts out of her den to check out the new smells, and dives back into it when I enter with her food. It’s almost like a dance. We move back and forth, keeping each other’s bubble of personal space intact, though the bears are always made to yield to us. This helps keep both people and bears safe upon the cubs’ release back into the wild.

I hide some of Holly’s favourite foods under the leaves so she can forage for them. It won’t take her long. Her keen sense of smell will let her zero in on them right away, plus she’s cheating: now that I’m done with the boring cleaning she’s watching what I do. No worries, Holly, we’ve saved the carrots for the other bears.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Joy and heartbreak

The rage and desperation of the grizzly cub tearing at the fence are terrible to watch. She roars and roars as she charges at the chain link fence, pulling at the strong wire mesh with her teeth and claws, looking for a weak spot – somewhere to break through and flee. The rattling noise of the fence drowns in her growls. She wheels around, starts to dig frantically at the gate, groaning and roaring. Her breath hangs in the air as grey puffs of mist that dissipate and go where she cannot: through the fence, back into freedom.

I am petrified in the face of her agony. I don’t know if I will ever get her roars out of my head again. If only we could make her understand that she will be okay, and free again next summer. It’s terribly sad to watch her, and equally upsetting to realize that all this could have been completely avoided. Her mother was killed and her sibling died in Bella Coola because food sources that weren’t bear-proofed kept drawing the grizzly family right into town.

Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter became the first facility in the world to rehabilitate and release grizzly cubs nine years ago, and in that time the shelter’s founders Peter and Angelika Langen have saved the lives of eighteen. Peter pulls up the slider to give the distraught cub access to the large part of her enclosure. She runs out in a blur of motion, gallops until she reaches the far end. Another roar as she reaches the fence. She veers off to the left and keeps running along the fence line, looking for a way out. But there is none.   

Not a peep can be heard from any of the thirty seven orphaned black bears in the other enclosures as the grizzly rages on and slowly tires herself out. The black bears now seem very meek and laid back to me in comparison. One more job remains to be done today, one that is all joy instead of heartbreak: We can reunite Huck with his sister Lavender. Huck is black bear cub who suddenly became very ill, and who has now recovered thanks to the veterinarian’s, Angelika’s, and my fellow volunteer Jesse’s care. His illness still remains a mystery – blood tests and autopsy results from his other sister, who had the same symptoms and died, have so far proven inconclusive.

We ease the transport box into Lavender’s enclosure. As soon as Angelika opens the door Huck runs out, away from us, and instinctively looks for safety by scaling the fence. It’s great to see him so strong again – it’s a far cry from the weak and wobbly bear he was ten days ago. He’s clinging to the fence, then suddenly his head weaves and his nose twitches: he has smelled his sister. Lavender, who is hiding in her den box, peeks out at him. Paw by paw Huck climbs down and makes his way over to the den box where Lavender is already stretching her neck towards him. 

Soft humming sounds come from both of them as they greet each other, touching noses. Huck climbs into the den box with Lavender and we watch with happy smiles as the two siblings keep nosing each other and snuggle up. As we softly close the door and take away the transport box to leave these two in peace, I notice that the grizzly cub has finally stopped roaring. Joy and heartbreak lie so closely together at NLWS, not only for the animals, but also for their caretakers.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

Fun with leaves

The leaves we raked up were a great hit with the hibernation group of 31 bears last week - since then, the chubby cubs have been spending more and more time in their cozy dens. Nine bears, who arrived at the shelter later and are in different enclosures, are likely not going to be hibernating but spending the winter putting on much-needed weight. Which will give them all the more time to fool around in leaves as the other cubs did:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A long journey for a small bear

A tiny bundle of thin brown fur peeks out of the dog transport box with wary eyes. The small bear is suspicious of us: We have just released her into a quarantine enclosure for new arrivals at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter. In the last days, humans have poked her with a sharp needle which made her go to sleep, locked her up in a crate, and driven her in noisy motor vehicles to this completely unfamiliar place. 

Her journey began on a walking trail in the Kootenays where she had been spotted repeatedly on her own. When the village office’s phone kept ringing with calls about the cub, the waterfront area frequented by the little orphan was cordoned off to keep people as well as the bear safe. People tried hard to keep track of the cub’s location and kept calling in sightings to the B.C. Conservation Officers’ Hotline (1-877-952-7277), as well as NLWS. A file number issued by Conservation Officers Services for the bear ensured that the public, the C.O.s and NLWS were referring to the same animal. But would she qualify for rehabilitation? 

To determine if a bear has indeed lost its mother, the cub has to have been observed repeatedly on its own for a number of days. As tempting as it may be to leave out food for an underweight orphan – fed bears are not candidates for rehabilitation. So folks in the Kootenay village made sure their garbage was locked up and did not feed the cub. Pictures of the little bear perched in an apple tree helped determine her size and thereby her age before she was caught by the C.O. - only bear cubs under one year are considered for rehabilitation. She was very small, definitely this year’s cub, hadn’t been fed, and so she qualified. But she was located in the Kootenays, over one thousand kilometers south of Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter.

People pitched in yet again to give this animal a second chance. The trucking company Bandstra Transportation, who has been helping orphaned wildlife for many years by transporting the animals for free, got the bear as far as Prince George. She missed the connection to Smithers, and after an appeal for help on NLWS’s Facebook page a member of the public jumped in and drove her the remaining distance.        

Now the tiny cub is finally safe at NLWS. She weighs only 28lbs and looks so much smaller than the 36 black bear cubs who have been in care at the shelter for a while that it’s hard to believe she is the same age. She is very nervous, and so am I. This is the very first bear I will be looking after. It’s my responsibility to keep her enclosure clean, provide her with fresh water, fruit and veggies so she will be able to grow to a healthy weight, and to monitor her health. 

The shelter has an excellent record of rehabilitating cubs that do not become problem bears upon release. I owe it to NLWS, to this bear and the community that worked so hard to save her to keep it that way. The cub and I will have to find a fine balance of respecting each other’s space without getting too familiar when I move around in her small quarantine enclosure to clean and feed.
The little bear cannot know our intentions, or what reactions her movements will trigger. Carefully she steps out of the transport crate. She keeps a distrustful eye on us, yet finds the courage to immediately make a beeline for the pile of fruit waiting for her. Her will to live and her hunger are so fierce she begins to eat even before we shut the door to her enclosure, and before her rehabilitation has properly begun.