Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Spring break

I guess I inadvertendly had a bit of a spring break as far as my blog is concerned! My excuses: madly finishing my translation of Robert McCammon's excellent historical novel "Speaks the Nightbird", all 45 bears being awake and active now ... and my partner came down here for a three-week visit.

We went for a few hikes in Babine Provincial Park, and up into Silver King Basin.
The trail up to Silver King is rather boring (an old mining road and no views except trees along most of the way), but once you hit the alpine, it's beautiful.

In other news - so yeah, all 45 bears are awake and active now, but we haven't received any newborn orphans yet. I'll try to get caught up here over the next week by posting every few days what's been happening since ... er ... February. Happy Spring to all of you!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Starving on a full stomach

“Rain” looks like a ghost moose. The now four-year-old cow who had been orphaned as a small calf and raised at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter now looks like a skeleton covered with fur. Her hip bones jut out over deep hollows where flesh and muscle should be. It’s easy to count her ribs. Her hind legs are spindly; the massive leg muscles seem to have wasted away. 

She did not use to look like this. NLWS rehabilitated her as a young calf and she was released healthy. Rain thrived in the wild and had at least one calf. It’s only when she showed up again at NLWS last August and began staying around the area that it became apparent something was wrong with her: liquid diarrhea caked her hind legs, and she looked a bit skinny. Rain continued to lose weight at an alarming rate, dripping diarrhea wherever she went. 

I half expected her to suddenly drop dead, but instead another adult rehabbed moose cow, Belle, was found dying nearby. She had had a calf last summer who looked just fine, and while Belle had pulpy diarrhea and looked a bit skinny, she wasn’t even closely as emaciated as Rain. And yet it was Belle who died. 

The vet was called for a post-mortem on Belle. He didn’t find any apparent abnormalities, other than that the animal showed clear signs of starvation. Yet her stomachs and intestines were completely full. Opening the stomach revealed soupy yellow-greenish contents. The organs and samples of the stomach contents were sent in to a laboratory for analysis, but the result came back inconclusive. 

Without any firm evidence at hand, the mystery of moose starving on a full stomach is at this point a matter of piecing together bits of evidence. And it seems that hay may lie at the core of the problem.
Smithers is farm country, and in winter both deer and moose can often be observed feeding on large hay bales left out in the fields. While hay is good fodder for cattle and horses, it can be deadly to deer if consumed in quantity over a long period of time, and if the animal is weakened or has an underlying health issue. It takes ruminants like deer and moose weeks to adjust their digestive system to food that is different from what they would normally be eating at certain times of the year. As a result, they cannot digest hay properly, are unable to get enough calories and nutrients from it to maintain or improve physical health, and can starve to death on a hay-filled stomach. This phenomenon has been studied in deer for decades.

Far fewer studies have been done on moose. In the early 1990s the Alaskan Moose Research Centre in Soldotna studied how eating hay affects moose and found that over a period of eleven weeks, adult moose who exclusively ate hay lost an average of 53kg of body weight. Calves maintained their body mass, but had lost all the fat on their rump at the end of the trial, putting them at increased danger of starvation. For animals with an underlying health problem, even a minor one, this can well be a death sentence.

It seems that leaving hay accessible to deer and moose can have potentially lethal consequences for them. This might point to another aspect of declining moose numbers in areas where farm country and moose habitat intersect. Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter is hoping to monitor if Rain will survive the winter, and how much of an impact hay consumption has on the health of their rehabbed moose and deer after they have been released.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When bears play musical chairs

Late February 2017

I think I’m turning into a helicopter mom. At night I dream about my bears, and in the mornings my first thought has been about Spruce, my furry problem child: Did he get kicked out of his den again or did he manage to defend it? The bears are playing musical chairs with their den boxes, and Spruce is very good at losing. He looks the part, too: sad. I wish he would make friends with one of the ten other orphaned black bear cubs he shares the enclosure with.

But it seems they are too busy changing boxes and booting Spruce out of his. Noel, a cub with a chip on her shoulder who has been picking fights with most of her foster siblings, apparently started it all off. Hunched over in a threatening position she started stealing food from Spruce right in front of his box. He popped his jaws and grumbled threats, but in vain. He couldn't assert himself. She ate his food, and days later squeezed into his den. Snarls and growls erupted, Noel’s fuzzy bum poked in and out of the entrance. The entire box shook with bear rage until Spruce finally managed to kick her out, spitting and hissing.

In the wild, bears can move to a different spot or out of range of a more dominant bear. The level of interaction the orphaned cubs experience with so many other bears in the enclosures at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter is different from how they would grow up in the wild. Yet without a mother bear to solve conflict situations for them, these fights – quite harmless because the bears are still small – give the cubs a chance to learn how to look after themselves. 

It does come with one drawback. Survival rates after release back into the wild are slightly better for rehabilitated bear cubs than for cubs raised by their bear mothers. But while cubs raised by their mothers in the wild often die due to human impact, rehabbed bears tend to fall prey to other bears and cougars – having had little chance to learn predator avoidance because of their time in human care. 
How will Spruce fare once he is released in June? I’m not too sure. The day after he managed to evict Noel from his box, he finds himself booted out by three other bears. With temperatures dipping into the -20s at night and a mean wind chill, I don’t want him huddled on the climbing platform for days and nights on end. True, he is a wild animal and he does have protective fur, but his options of finding a comfy sleeping place are limited by the fence around the enclosure.

I end up setting up a box for him in a different part of the enclosure. Making a bear understand where I want him to establish his safe spot isn’t all that hard. I place his food right in the box entrance where he can see and smell it from the climbing platform. The next step is to rob him of the illusion that the platform is his safe spot: I chase him down with a long-handled rake – and he scoots into the box where the food is.

Success doesn’t come that easy, though. Other bears kick him out again, and I have to repeat the procedure three more times until he finally manages to establish himself in it. I feel like a parent with a shy, nerdy child that needs extra support to succeed in life. This little bit I can do, but the rest is all up to him.   

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.