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.