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.

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.