Thursday, December 29, 2016

NLWS: The hibernation station

Chiselling frozen bear poop off the ground in below -20° temperatures is a fine art I am only beginning to master. It’s all a matter of whacking it from the right angle, with the right force. Superglue is nothing compared to this.

Beady bear eyes watch me in my efforts. I wonder what they make of the poop-chiselling human. Even the bear cubs who are not hibernating have become a lot less active in this cold weather and spend most of the time snuggled up to their sibling or buddy in the straw-filled den boxes. I peek into each one to make sure everybody is accounted for and well, and am surprised when two brown faces stare back at me from a box normally occupied by two black cubs. A quick check of the other dens reveals that the bears have switched boxes.

These are the cubs that have arrived at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in the fall and whose mission is to spend this winter eating. A bear cub needs to weigh 60lbs or more to hibernate, but some of the newest arrivals have clocked in at only 22 to 30-something pounds. 

Everything is quiet over at the other large enclosure where the 31 cubs are hibernating who arrived at the shelter earlier in the year and have packed on enough weight. Bears don’t actually spend the entire winter in one continuous slumber. They also move around in their dens, groom themselves, rearrange their straw and branch bedding, and sometimes have a brief look outside or eat a few mouthfuls of snow. But most of all, they sleep. 

Hibernating at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter has its obvious differences from hibernating in the wild. The cubs in care have den boxes similar to supersized dog houses with a bedding of straw and branches so we clean them. But we changed the feeding regime for the hibernation group in fall to mirror the diminishing nutrition intake bears would have in the wild.

When it was clear these 31 cubs had reached a good weight and could hibernate, we began cutting out the high sugar content fruit and fed more root vegetables. Fish and meat still remained on the menu for a little while longer, until we cut this out too. We tossed spruce branches into the enclosure, so the bears could not only pad their dens with material they would find in the wild, but also have bark to chew on. Apart from a healthy body weight, the lack of food, and cold weather, the availability of bark to form a fecal plug is a trigger for hibernation.  

In late October and early November the chubby cubs became less and less active, preferring to spend time in their dens instead of playing and climbing. They didn’t even care much about eating anymore: the arrival of the food buckets was greeted with almost reluctance instead of the usual interest. It reminded me of a sleeper having to get out of bed to go to the breakfast table. We switched from feeding the hibernation group daily to every few days, mirroring how in the wild bears don’t find much to eat anymore once winter sets in. Eventually, silence greeted us at the enclosure. The 31 bears had gone into hibernation.

If some of the underweight cubs we are continuing to feed put on enough weight, they could still hibernate for a couple of months later this winter. But for now they are keeping us busy preparing their food buckets and chiselling the poop out of the frozen ground.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Q & A session at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter

Two more orphaned bear cubs arrived at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter yesterday, bringing up the total numer to 44 bears in care.

If you have questions about the shelter's wildlife rehab program, tomorrow night is your chance to pose them to the shelter's co-founder Angelika Langen! As part of the Dawson's Lights Fundraiser, Angelika will be available to answer questions, starting at 2pm Pacific Standard Time on the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter Facebook page. See you there!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

How to get a bear's "pawtograph"

The sedated black bear cub in my arms feels like nothing more than a scrap of fur. His limbs are loose and relaxed from the sedative, and I lean back so his head doesn’t loll. A wild and sharp smell with an underlying aroma of cloves clings to him and rises up to me. He has just been through the standard admittance procedure at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter: he has been ear tagged, microchipped, weighed, and dewormed.

While the ear tag can help to identify him after his release, the deworming will hopefully allow him to pack on weight faster and keep his caretakers at a lower risk of picking up worms from him. Along with the ear tag number, his weight and state of health information, we also file away the little bear’s paw prints. They are his unwitting contributing to help pay for his stay. 

To avoid habituating the bears to humans, Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter is closed to the public except for one single day of the year, July 1st. But every winter brings the chance for wildlife supporters to connect with the bear cubs in care in a very special way. Paw prints (or “pawtographs”, as veteran NLWS volunteer Kim likes to call them) can be won during the annual Dawson’s Lights Fundraiser held on the shelter’s Facebook page in the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  

Named after a bear cub called Dawson, the event was initially started to raise money for his radio collar. It has since become a tradition to help with the operating costs of the registered charity. Every $20 donation lights up a bulb on a pine tree outside Smithers’ Feed Store, and every donor has a chance of winning a paw print of the currently 41 black bear cubs in care, along with a photograph and short write-up on the bear. The aim is to have the entire tree lit up by Christmas.

Why spend money on giving orphaned wildlife a second chance? At first glance wildlife rescue and rehab seems to be all about saving the life of an individual animal. The young animals that arrive at the shelter stand a very small chance of survival out there on their own. But it is so much more than that.

The time orphaned wildlife spend in care offers a rare opportunity to learn about their behaviour, health issues and habits. However, the impact of wildlife rehabilitation doesn’t end there. It continues on through generations because the animals, once old and healthy enough to survive on their own, are released and reintegrate back into the wild animal population.

The bears at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter get all the press, but the shelter rehabilitates all mammals, among them many deer and moose. Contrary to bears, the deer and moose can be released right at the shelter and often return to visit over the years. This makes the long-term success of rehabilitated fawns and calves in the wild a lot easier to track than that of bears. Rehabbed moose returning years later with their own calves in tow illustrate how saving the life of one orphaned animal can actually mean saving the lives of their potential offspring, and help shore up the numbers of their species.

I gently lay down the little bear cub in his enclosure to sleep off the remaining effects of the sedative. He doesn’t know it, but it’s the support of complete strangers out there that will allow him to grow and one day leave his tracks in the wilderness again.

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.