Thursday, April 20, 2017

A little bear's dream come true

Adult bears are mostly solitary animals that don’t go looking for friends. Social skills are learned as cubs, early in life, and one of the fascinating insights that caring for orphaned bears brings with it is witnessing how young cubs make friends. Bringing across the right message to other bears and interpreting behaviour correctly is vital when they are back in the wild. It’s also an important life skill for when they reach sexual maturity at around the age of three and want to mate.

Bear cub friendships at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter sometimes blossom instantly. More often it takes time, sometimes very long – so long that I had just about given up on little Berbere ever getting anywhere with his crush, Mimosa. He spent the better part of February and March trying to impress beautiful and aloof Mimosa, strutting, sprinting, climbing, and waving his paws at her. But all he ever received for his efforts were bored looks from her and sighs from me. 

But what tiny Berbere lacks in body size, he makes up for with determination and curiosity. He shifted his focus from Mimosa to Spirit, a very laid-back cub (one could almost say phlegmatic) who arrived at the shelter in December after almost freezing to death. Mimosa accepted Spirit as a buddy, if not close friend fairly quickly. Befriending her buddy probably wasn’t Berbere’s cunning ploy to win Mimosa’s heart, though who can say for sure? The more time I spend looking after bears, the more I wonder.

I just noticed that Berbere stopped his wild sprints and swaggering walk, and kept inching his way closer to Spirit every day. Bears tell each other how close is too close: Spirit ducked his head, and folding back his ears began to moan a warning with pouty lips. Berbere answered with the same body language and moan, and the two began swaying backward and forward with stuttered moans, keeping the space between them. 

Bears have very expressive lips that are quite the mood indicator, I find. An unhappy or slightly upset bear will stick out the front of his upper lip, literally making a long face. If the bear is feeling more strongly upset and is becoming defensive, the bottom lip will also stretch out to blow a warning huff.

Over a couple of weeks, Spirit and Berbere got past their long-lipped stand-offs and began closing the distance between them in small increments. Did Spirit finally give in to Berbere’s persistent badgering for the sake of peace? I never saw Spirit initiate contact with Berbere, but one day I came into the enclosure and found the two carefully testing if they could play together. Preserving personal space is important to bears, and they will use things like trees as a safety buffer. Berbere and Spirit’s first play session looked appropriately awkward: keeping a post squarely between them so neither one could come too close, they played a very gentle game of peekaboo and paw swatting, and thus became friends.
Berbere (standing on hind legs), Spirit and the lovely, though shedding, Mimosa
Now that Berbere has been tagging along with Spirit, Mimosa began to pay him more attention – though in an entirely self-serving way. When Berbere scores a tasty piece of fish, guess who ambles over and steals it from him without him protesting? Mimosa. But food stealing or sharing led to playing, and finally Berbere’s dream came true: he now shares a den with Spirit and his beloved Mimosa.

I’m not too sure how thrilled the two other bears are about this latest development, but Berbere seems in heaven that after all this time without his mom and siblings he finally has somebody to snuggle with.

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!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Bear release logistics

Only two more months, and the bear cubs currently in care at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter will be released back into their home regions. The logistics of transporting 44 black bears and one grizzly to sites all across British Columbia seem daunting to me. But NLWS founders Peter and Angelika Langen have done this for 27 years and are up to the challenge – the trickiest of which might be to capture the grizzly cub Shadow for release.

Shadow arrived at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in late October absolutely wild with rage. Her desperate roars echoed off the mountains as she tore at the fence of the grizzly enclosure, trying to get out. Her mother had been shot after foraging in Bella Coola where food was left accessible to bears. NLWS was Shadow’s only chance at survival.

Just about all bear cubs, even grizzlies, eventually accept their temporary fate of living in human care. Shadow, however, is different. She wants nothing to do with people at all and hides in her den box when she catches a whiff of human scent. In the five months she has been here, I have seen her maybe three times. Even Peter Langen, her caregiver, rarely gets a glimpse of her in daylight. Her strong tendency to avoid humans may help her survive in the wild, but it poses challenges for capturing her for release.

The normal procedure is routine for the Langens. A transport box or bear trap gets readied, the yearling is quickly tranquilized in their enclosure, and weighed, paw printed, and lip tattooed in addition to the ear tag and microchip the animal has already received during the admittance health check. The bear is then put into the transport cage and can be sent back to freedom. Tranquilizing a bear in the enclosure is normally not all that difficult, especially with black bears who can easily be shooed up a climbing tree and injected with a needle fastened to a long pole.  

Cornering Shadow with a needle would mean provoking her into a charge, however. Her distrust of humans is too great. Chasing her out of the den and darting her as she runs though the enclosure is also not a good option, because the more adrenalin an animal has pumping through their veins, the less effective the tranquilizer is. The normal dosage is unlikely to work properly when the bear is extremely agitated, while a higher dosage runs the risk of killing the animal by overdose. 

The plan to capture Shadow is now to get her used to feeding in a small part of her enclosure that can be closed off from the rest with a metal slider. By connecting the slider cable to a piece of meat just prior to her release in June, we hope she will lock herself into the smaller space and vent her anger until she can be tranquilized through the fence. 

The procedures leading up to the bears’ release, including the road trip – in many cases the yearlings face a journey of over a thousand kilometres from Smithers – are no doubt unpleasant and very stressful for the animals. After their months spent in human care this is a good thing, though, because it reinforces that humans are unpredictable and close contact will have unpleasant results.
We want these bears to succeed and live the lives they were meant to lead. And with the Langen’s track record of just under 400 bear releases, and I have the best hopes for Shadow and the other cubs.