Friday, September 8, 2017

The constant buzz

... of wasps, hornets and yellow jackets fills the air and we encounter numerous dug up yellow jacket nests wherever we go.
They can't possibly all have been dug up by bears - we easily walk past 10 newly destroyed nests every day -, though there are a lot of trees with remnants of wasp and hornet nests where the scratch marks on the trunk tell exactly that tale.
The buzz that fills the woods tells a more complex story, though. This summer, a major outbreak of aphids and leaf beetles attacked the poplars, willows and even soapberry bushes in our area. Honeydew, a sticky sugary liquid secreted by the aphids as they eat the plant's sap, coated the entire understory of the deciduous forest, sticking to our hands, the dog's fur and everything else like glue. The leaves of fireweed and blades of grass turned glossy with the stuff.

Yellow jackets, hornets and wasps prey on leaf pests, so I assume their crazy number this year has a direct connection to the aphid outbreak - and the proliferation of wasp nests seems to draw more bears than we usually see into the area. Which in turn may have resulted in moose cows and calves keeping a very low profile. Maybe moose are also affected by the compromised browse and seek out areas that haven't been affected by the aphids? Either way, we hardly see any moose or even sign of them, which is very unusual.

The plague of yellow jackets even displaced us from our outhouse: I assume they are hunting for flies in the pit. Lowering bared sensitive body parts onto the seat and thereby sealing in stinging insects below is too unnerving; we've set up a temporary bucket system in our wood shed.

In mid-August, we paddled and portaged into a smaller lake and were rewarded with a reprieve from the waps, thanks to the prevailing spruce forest.
Our foldable canoe made the three portages easier:
 Our dog enjoyed living the easy life once again, getting conveyed across the lakes by his people and frolicking along the portage trails while we grunted and swore.
Golden sunrise after rain

Moose skull and antlers

Fall is colouring the trees now, who must be thorougly looking forward to shedding their poor sucked and eaten leaves. It's going to be an interesting moose hunt this year - are they going to return from wherever they've been hanging out?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Back into the wild

After ten months in civilization, I now can't get enough of wild spaces. It's almost like a hunger, a need to stuff myself with the sound of wind stroking the mountains, the sight of unbroken forests to the horizon, the taste of earth and wildflowers and trees.
 Is this how my bears felt when we released them? I crave the feeling of tussocks and rock under my feet, of sleeping with only a foamie between me and the ground, snuggling up to the earth.
We celebrated my return up north with a hike to Samuel Glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, close to Chilkat Pass (Haines Pass).
You can go for miles and miles here, accompanied by the warning whistles of gophers and marmots.
The nights were chilly even in early August; at least that gave us an early morning reprieve from the billions of bugs of every description that were overjoyed to find other blood than just that of gophers to suck.
I capped off the trip by taking the scenic way home.
A woodland caribou swam by my camp on the first morning:
 Back at home, our resident porcupine came by for an early morning visit.
It was still so dark out I had to use the flash. The porcupine knows us and isn't scared of us at all, but wondered what the flashing light was all about. She abandoned her breakfast and came over to me, quills down, to check it out.
When she was getting too close for my comfort, I moved a bit to indicate I was getting nervous. She immediately got the hint and turned around, quills still down, to resume her breakfast.
What a wonderful homecoming it's been!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Saying goodbye

How to say goodbye to the animals I’ve lived, breathed and dreamed for almost ten months? It’s been a time so intense, uplifting and heart wrenching that I almost feel as if the little orphans ate me up and spat me out again in a different shape. I’ve never done work before where I cried so much – tears of sadness, happiness, exhaustion and frustration. The worst was when the animals cried as well: bear cubs, deer fawns and moose calves desperately calling for their mom, injured animals crying out in pain.

With each little orphan who came in I’ve wished there was a way to let its mother know that her baby was at a safe place now, that we would do our very best as foster moms, and that her little ones are loved. There are a lot of impossible things you find yourself wishing for when you are looking after orphaned wildlife.

But there is something that was better than anything I could have wished for: my co-volunteers Ludmila and Brooke. We were such an awesome team. Our wildly different backgrounds, huge disparity in age, and completely different personalities somehow turned out to be a strength. In our volunteer world that largely revolved around sorting through run off fruit and vegetables, keeping track of the consistency of animal poop, and keeping the feed kitchen clean, we came to see humour in completely unfunny things. We didn’t just wash the floor, we blessed it in a daily ritual with detergent (ah, that lavender smell!). Undoing the annoying rubber bands and twist ties around interminable bundles of radishes turned into unpacking greetings from our queendom, the big agribusiness farm that produces them.

With all the stress that looking after the animals can create, it was laughing tears with Ludi and Brooke in moments of utter silliness that often balanced things out and kept me sane. There was always one among us who greeted the at times overwhelming work load with the same war cry: “Okay, let’s do this!” 

And we did it. Plucking hair for DNA records from tranquilized bears (Ludi’s specialty), taking paw prints (Brooke’s expertise), taking garbage bins of compost away, sanding the icy driveway while using the sand buckets as walkers, hauling logs and branches, you name it. We were there for each other as much as we were there for our animals.

Wildlife rehab takes you outside your comfort zone, pushes you to your limits and sometimes beyond them. I came to Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter to learn more about bear behaviour and wildlife in general, and to help give orphaned animals a second chance. I leave here with incredible memories of my animals. Being allowed to share in so many intimate moments of their lives was a humbling experience; the most poignant being how these animals have managed to overcome sometimes horrific trauma and eventually embraced the good things in life again.

In wildlife rehab, we let the animals go once they are fit to survive on their own. Setting free who I have come to love is tough, it’s like tearing a little piece of my heart out and sending it afloat. But at the same time it’s beautiful because it feels like I have become part of something much bigger.
I am lucky to have had these experiences, and even more lucky to have had such incredible people to share them with. Thank you, Brooke and Ludmila, for the jokes and laughter, for letting me drone on and on about my favourite bears, and for letting me sleep. I love you guys. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Running with moose

“I don’t have nipples on my ankles”, I blurt out as the hungry mule deer fawn butts me again. She nuzzles the protective boot covers I’m wearing and pulls on the hem of my coveralls, kneels down and nudges my ankle with her forehead again. Why does she keep looking for milk way down there?

Again, I offer her the bottle she abandoned in favour of my ankles while her foster brother sucks ecstatically on the bottle in my other hand. But she seems to have lost interest in finishing her milk. A couple more nudges against my shoe covers, and she wanders over to the fence where the six moose calves are already calling for our attention, wanting milk. The morning rush at Tim Horton’s is nothing compared to this.

I’ve been helping out my co-volunteer Brooke with the deer and moose feedings on occasion now. Moose in particular are difficult to raise in human care. They are very susceptible to diseases, easily get diarrhea and have very diverse food preferences, preferring to browse on a great variety of plants. Feeding the fawns and moose involves putting on clean, protective coveralls, gloves, and shoe covers so we don’t unwittingly carry germs that might cause diseases into the enclosures.

The male deer fawn, long eyelashes halfway lowered over his smoky blue-grey eyes, is almost done with his bottle. To encourage him to poop, I begin scratching above and next to his twitching tail. Funny how that works: just a few seconds later deer pellets fall to the ground. 

The three deer fed, Brooke and I enter the moose pen. This is easier written than done as all six calves push against us, shouldering each other out of the way. Above the tangle of spindly moose legs the velvety, long-whiskered noses stab at me as I quickly grab two bottles and push the nipples into the closest calves’ mouths. The soft brown eyes lose the hungry expression and concentrate inward. The bottles empty within no time, and the two moose are like different animals, turning away with an almost bored expression on their faces. They stand around as if wondering what to do now that their bellies are full. One of them folds her front legs and lies down.

 By now, Brooke is an old pro at making moose get up: in order to digest the milk properly, moose calves and deer fawns should not lie down right after feeding. She pushes and pulls on the calf. “Come on, get up.” Reluctantly, the calf raises her bum into the air and pushes herself up on those impossibly long legs. “Let’s walk with them.”
The calves just stand and stare as we walk away from them, calling for them to follow. I break into a run, kicking up my legs in a probably very poor imitation of a running moose. “Come on!” One takes a couple of steps forward, setting the other five moose into motion. Now they are all following me.
I leap through the tall grass and bushes in my coveralls and powder-blue booties, hooves thundering behind me. Through the underbrush we go, running for the tall spruces. I stop and turn around. All the moose calves stop immediately and stare at me. I start running again, and so do they, following me through the enclosure until we are back where we started. The calves begin nosing through the cut up fruit they get free choice as part of their food.

Kevin Costner may have been dancing with wolves, I muse as Brooke and I tie fresh willow branches to the fence. But that can’t have been as much fun as running with moose.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Trying to save a bear cub's life

As soon as I push the spoon under his nose, he turns away. It’s as if the spoon isn’t full of food, but loaded instead with an invisible power that pushes bear’s head away. We’ve been sitting like this for fifteen minutes already, the cat-sized bear cub and I: me trying to get medicated food into him, and he studiously avoiding the spoon. 

The bear’s face looks grotesque, his lower left jaw distended by what appears to be a huge black blood clot. His tongue and lips have been pushed off to the side by the horrible black thing in his mouth. My mind races through the options of giving the bear the powdered antibiotics mixed into the high calorie paste on the spoon: he won’t drink from the bowl; if I smear it on his paw so he licks it off, I can’t be sure he actually swallows all the medication; smearing it on the good side of his mouth with my finger also won’t guarantee he licks it off.

I’m at my wits’ end. This cub won’t live if doesn’t take his antibiotics - and if he doesn’t eat more. A visit to the vet two days before revealed that he has a partially shattered lower jaw bone, which hadn’t been apparent when he came in twelve days earlier and was first examined. The little one had been doing quite well at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, feistily playing with his brother and eating a lot until he suddenly seemed to feel sick.

When the vet showed us the necrotizing gum tissue and exposed dead bone in his mouth, I realized that I’m just beginning to understand how incredibly tough and resilient wild animals are to pain and injuries. But that won’t help this cub if he keeps wasting away because he won’t eat. I’m not getting anywhere with my attempts of giving him the prescribed medication. Angelika Langen and long-time volunteer Kim Gruijs succeed in removing the large bubble of bloody fluid in his mouth by flushing it with a saline solution, but he still needs more medical intervention.

The following morning finds us at the vet again where the skinny little cub gets hooked up to IV fluids. His jaw is healing well, but he is in poor general condition. If he continues to refuse food, he will die. We are hoping that the fluids will make him feel better and help his appetite.
Receiving treatment at Babine Animal Hospital

Back at the shelter, Kim and Angelika’s daughter Tanja Landry make the decision to withhold water from the little one so milk is the only liquid available to him and he is forced to drink it. I feel uneasy about this because he has been refusing milk as well as food. What if he won’t drink it? Tanja makes the good point that he won’t survive if all he takes in is water.

I have no luck giving him milk that evening. He turns away his head. It is Kim who finally succeeds in making him drink it: she squirts milk into his mouth with a syringe, forcing him to swallows it. I hold my breath when after the few mouthfuls his milky muzzle begins to look for the syringe, wanting more. It’s late at night, but suddenly everything seems bright with hope.

Was it the IV fluids, the syringe feeding, or the combined effort of all of us to save his life? In the morning, the little cub sticks out his pale pink tongue and, looking back and forth between the bowl and me, starts lapping up the milk. This is the sweetest sound I’ve heard all week.