Friday, March 24, 2017

Waking up from hibernation

Forget Groundhog Day. It must be spring now: our bears are awake. We’ve been anticipating the 31 black bear yearlings who have been in their dens since mid-November to wake up for a while. Over the last weeks, we heard them knocking around in their boxes and having arguments in increasing volume and frequency, so it didn’t come as a surprise when the first bear stuck his head out on March 14th. 

Getting used to the bright daylight and walking around after all these months of hibernation is no easy matter. Blinking bleary-eyed into the sunshine and drinking in lungfuls of fragrant spring air, the cubs come tumbling out of the dens. They stand on rubbery legs, seek each other’s furry shoulders for support. It’s not like they have whiled away the winter in complete laziness, though: 26 of the cubs, who all chose to hibernate in the same large den, have managed to reduce five bales of straw and a large load of spruce branches to a layer of chewed-up, crumbly dust over that time.   

The bears look giddy to be out again. On legs that appear to be about as strong as cooked spaghetti, Nutmeg, a bottle-raised yearling, saunters toward the heads of lettuce the bears are offered as a first food after hibernation. It’s almost as if there is a time lapse between moving each individual leg, as if Nutmeg has to think about how to set his paws forward. He flops down on his ample butt in front of a head of lettuce and grasps it roughly with his front paws. Bears are normally extremely dexterous and can use their paws very delicately and precisely, but it looks like these fine motor skills are beyond a bear who’s just become active after months of rest. 

Even sitting up is too much work for Nutmeg: He lets his bum slide forward, slide until he’s lying flat on his back, hind legs spread wide, and clumsily clutches the lettuce to his chest. He takes a few bites, then lets it roll away and drops his front paws as if so much work defeats him. Lying spread-eagled on his back with shredded greens sprinkled across his chest, he cranes his neck to see how his den buddies are making out with the food. He just can’t work up enough motivation to eat more right now.

It takes time for the bears’ digestive systems to get going again after all these months. The greens we are offering now help with that. Just as we tried in late fall to mirror the diminishing, lower-calorie foods bears find in nature just before going into hibernation, we are now imitating the nutrient situation wild bears are faced with in spring. We are feeding watery, low-calorie greens, then some root vegetables, and eventually higher calorie fare, as well as meat and fish for protein.

People often wonder if these cubs won’t seek out gardens after their release back into the wild; after all, at the shelter they are largely fed fruit and vegetable donations from supermarkets. Post-release monitoring shows, however, that they instinctively feed on the same wild foods as bears who have not spent time in human care. In fact, whenever we can offer them wild foods such as dandelions and berries, they much prefer it over garden vegetables. 

Meanwhile Nutmeg has discovered his lettuce decoration and is awkwardly trying to eat the greenery in his chest hair. His job is to keep growing and get stronger until his release in June, ours is to organize enough food for the 45 bear cubs currently in care. Spring has sprung indeed.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Love is in the air - and bear

My co-volunteer Brooke and Berbere in October

I think our fourteen-month-old cubs have hit the bear equivalent of the teenage years. Attitudes change faster than you can say “boo”, and there is a general flexing of physical and mental muscles. With no bear is this more apparent than with Berbere, who seems to be in love. He was assigned to my care in October when he was only 19lbs of nervous, tiny bear. 

Over the last few weeks he has morphed from Mr. Shy-and-Terrified into still tiny, but very outgoing Mr. Loverboy. He is like a bear transformed. And it seems to be mostly due to one other cub.

We recently moved Mimosa, the bear who taught me to see the beauty in a bluff charge, into the enclosure Berbere shares with twelve cubs who are spending the winter gaining weight instead of hibernating. Was it Mimosa’s pretty face or her self-possessed manner? Something about her set something about Berbere in motion – literally. Awkward little Berbere, who is not the most athletic of bears, suddenly enjoys sprinting through the enclosure and performing flying leaps onto logs (not always successfully – sometimes he misses and falls to the ground). Hugging the climbing tree to his chest, he’ll shinny up as fast and high as he can, then throw back his head to check if Mimosa has noticed him. She usually has, but judging by her bewildered stare not necessarily in a positive way.

Beautiful Mimosa

Berbere is looking for love
So far, Berbere is undeterred by this lack of results. His walk has turned into a swagger, and he keeps approaching Mimosa, who is neither amused nor pleased by this. And yet he can’t stop himself. He’s constantly peeking at her from behind tree trunks, dangling his paw at her from above, and inching as closely to her as he dares – to no avail. 

Considering that Berbere spent his first three months at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter mostly in the safety of his den box, this is huge. Getting him to leave the box for cleaning used to be a major undertaking. He stayed in quarantine an extra month so he could gain more weight without having to compete with the other bears for food, and when we moved him into an enclosure closer to the other cubs, he took root in the new den box with a vengeance. He did not dare explore his new surroundings for weeks. I just about despaired. How would he ever survive in the wild if he couldn’t find the courage to leave what he considers his safe spot? He sniffed the bears from the distant safety of his box, he dragged food into the safety of his box, he did not want to spend any time away from it. He thought this was all he had. 

If he hadn’t been orphaned, his mother would still be providing the security he craved. I guess this is one of the difficulties all orphaned wildlife in rehab face: the animals can’t rely on their mother anymore, and have to somehow find the strength within themselves to feel safe, at an earlier age than they would naturally be challenged to do this.

But somehow, Berbere succeeded. At long last we began to see him a couple of metres away from his den, awkwardly clambering around on the climbing structure, and eventually checking out the larger part of the enclosure and the other bears as well. As he discovered that nothing bad happened, he began to trust himself more and more. It feels like with this latest leap of faith in himself, wooing Mimosa to become his friend, he is finally growing into his real character. I am so lucky to witness this.  

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.