Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Swans are messy eaters

I am moving in slow motion, avoiding direct eye contact so I don’t get walloped by the powerful wings of the trumpeter swan I’m trying to feed. He stands regally on his huge flat, black feet, hissing a constant warning at me that sounds almost like motor noise. I eyeball the size of the dirty water bucket and food dish I need to remove from the cage and try to gauge how far I can crack the door open without bumping into the swan: It might just fit. 

The warning hiss has increased in volume. The door opens towards the swan, shielding my body – as long as the bird doesn’t move towards the open crack. I turn my head and body slightly away, trying to be non-threatening, and stretch my arm towards the water bucket and into range of the swan. 
Volunteering at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter is a never ending string of surprises and adventures big and small. Injured or weakened birds that are dropped off by concerned people make for an interesting change from looking after bears – and I’m a sucker for the swan because I love waterfowl, although his stay with us will be brief. NLWS specializes in mammals, not birds. We send all birds with more complicated injuries or difficult diagnosis to the better equipped and more knowledgeable OrphanedWildlife Rehabilitation Society (O.W.L.) in Delta, B.C., or the Wildlife RescueAssociation (WRA) in Burnaby. 

I feel like I’m doing Tai Chi or inventing a new yoga pose as I slowly bend down and close my fingers around the rim of the water bucket, clinging to the wire mesh of the cage with the other hand. Success! I pull the bucket out of swan range, accompanied by the steady hiss and grumble of the bird. After performing the slow motion water-bucket pose again, this time with the clean, full bucket, I slide fresh food in and discover that this swan is the messiest of eaters. 

He stabs at the bowl with his beak, long neck undulating like a snake. Grated apple, potato and chick feed mix go flying everywhere as he scoops it up; he eats like a weed whacker. It’s unclear what is actually wrong with him, certainly not his appetite. Somebody found him in their yard and, when the bird didn’t leave, caught him and brought him to NLWS. Coast Mountain Air is lending the swan a helping wing as they do with so many birds in need of care by transporting him for a very reasonable rate to Vancouver. 

Catching the swan for his plane ride down south is less Tai Chi, and more action. Veteran NLWS volunteer Kim slowly approaches the bird with an open blanket and then pounces, covering the wings and long neck. While she hugs the swan (who does not appreciate it), I scoot the dog crate that he will travel in into position.  The swan succeeds in freeing his head from the blanket for a few seconds. I pull it back over his eyes and carefully guide his head into the crate while Kim manoeuvres the rest of his body. Finally we secure the bird in the crate. 

The swan leaves behind an incredible mess of shredded food and poop. We get an update from the shelter in Burnaby after he has been examined: He has no injuries, is only weakened – and he is the messiest eater they have ever seen. After a few days of building up his strength, the swan is released again. I’m happy I got to spend a little bit of time with him.

Seeing the beauty in a bluff charge

The small paws slam against the other side of the quarantine cage door, claws gripping the wire. Huffing two or three times, the bear cub struggles to maintain both grip and the ferocious attitude for another second or two before letting go. The two ears and twitching nose disappear from my view, followed by the light brown claws. A soft scuffing sound as the little bear lands back on the ground, and the bluff charge is over.

I am elated. The cub stands hunched over, fuzzy bum turned towards me, and gives me a glowering look that quickly turns insecure and then fearful. I step back from the door, out of sight so I don’t further stress this bear, and hug myself. I’m smiling like a madwoman. Since starting as a volunteer at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in October I’ve discovered that a bluff-charging bear cub can give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. 

That’s because a bluff charge is not only a sign the animal has enough energy to try to protect itself, but has the will to live. It seems to me that finding the will to live is a very discernible decision with some of the orphaned bears. This little cub arrived at the shelter in early January a very weak state. She miserably rolled up with her back facing the door of the cage, and wanted nothing to do with food or her new environment.

The philosophy of the shelter is to not unduly stress newly arrived animals and to build on the ability of the body to heal itself. Getting handled by humans is often traumatic for wildlife, so providing a quiet, dry, sheltered place helps reduce the stress the animal is experiencing. A vet gets called in if there are severe injuries or illness, but for the most part we just try to create a safe, peaceful environment and gently encourage the animal to build up its strength. 

The first sign this new cub was finding its will to live was the simple move of its head in the direction of warm, sweetened oatmeal. Slowly, ever so slowly the little bear sniffed at the bowl. I held my breath, waiting for the cub’s decision. Would it eat? Seconds passed, then finally the long tongue came out and the bear began to tentatively lick at the liquid. Did I put enough syrup in to make it enticing? Apparently I did, because the cub lapped up a few more sips before staring at us fearfully and rolling back into a ball.

It’s been small steps since then, each one leading up to a major milestone though. It’s unclear how this bear came to be on its own, but it is obvious from its size that it must have been starving for a while. Taking in food now happens slowly. At first the cub only lapped up the liquid in the oatmeal, then began eating a few mouthfuls of the actual porridge. I was thrilled.

Another milestone follows a day later when the bear gets up at the scent of oatmeal and begins to eat right away. It’s all slow motion movements that show how much effort it takes for the cub to stand and walk, to eat. I feel like we’ve hit a home run when the little bear decides it’s worthwhile to rearrange its bed of straw: bit by bit she rakes errant pieces on the floor onto the big pile that is her bed.
Next the fruit smoothies I’m offering so the cub doesn’t have to spend energy on chewing are finally accepted. But it’s the bluff charge that feels like the all-clear signal on the road to recovery.

We've had another set-back with her since I first wrote this, but now the little bear is doing really well and has joined the other twelve black bear vubs who aren't hibernating in the outside enclosure.

Monday, January 9, 2017

It's all about attitude

“Do you want to be friends with me?” is an emotionally charged question not just for humans, but orphaned bear cubs as well. It presents itself as soon as the newly arrived little bears at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter can be released from the quarantine cages into larger enclosures and the company of other cubs.

Normally black bear cubs stay with their mother until they are a year and a half old. That time has been cut much too short for the animals in care at NLWS. Being with other bears can help the cubs over the trauma of having been orphaned, often due to vehicle accidents, and finding themselves in human care. The bears here have lost their mothers and siblings, but at least they can find solace in their new foster brothers and sisters.

Making friends takes time, though, and isn’t easy. I can’t help but smile as I watch Huck, the black bear cub who was very sick back in October and has since fully recovered, sit down on his haunches next to Holly’s den box, careful not to block the entrance. He gingerly stretches his neck until he can peek around the corner into the box. Holly sticks her nose out a few inches, and Huck immediately lowers his head, averts his eyes and draws back. Holly does the same inside her den box, and a few seconds later Huck slowly peeks into it again. No angry growl comes in response, but as soon as Holly pokes her head out, Huck pulls away a little bit again. The two are gently probing how closely they tolerate each other’s presence. 

Holly is the smallest bear in this group of seven cubs, but size doesn’t automatically dictate rank among the cubs. It’s all about attitude and posturing. After we put out the food and leave the enclosure, my fellow volunteer and I watch the bears for a few minutes from the other side of the fence. 

There are two basic feeding strategies: grab food and run, or grab food and grumble. Holly’s den
Mr. Dill
mate Dill (we call him “Mr.” Dill because of his serious demeanor) prefers the latter: he stakes out a spot right in the apples and pears and grumbles a threat that sounds uncannily like “nyum, nyum, nyum” whenever a bear outside of his circle of friends approaches. Combined with hunched up shoulders and a tense body stance, his growl keeps two much bigger bears away.

Huck, on the other hand, prefers the grab and run strategy. The problem is that in order to grab a piece of food, he has to first get it. Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, he delicately takes one step, then another, using Holly’s den box for cover from the biggest bear of the group. But the big bear, who interestingly doesn’t dare approach Mr. Dill’s feeding spot, has already taken notice of Huck and is fixing him with a challenging stare. Huck freezes in his tracks and quickly checks if he can beat a fast retreat. This is not enough for the big bear: he pulls up his shoulders, lowers his head and takes the first fast steps to bluff charge Huck who now whirls around and runs for cover.

Clove bluff charging Huck

But as soon as the big bear has grabbed an apple and left the feeding area, Huck sneaks out again. This time he is successful and runs off with an apple in his mouth, his head held triumphantly high. Will Huck’s striking up a friendship with Holly mean that her den mate Mr. Dill accepts him as a buddy as well? I can’t wait to see.