Saturday, June 24, 2017

Farewell, my friend

The black nose sticking out of the feeding hole in the bear barrel twitches, inhaling the multitude of new smells: cedars, wildflowers, road dust. Then a familiar smell - me. The light brown eyes find mine. Berbere, the black bear yearling I've been looking after since he arrived terribly small and underweight at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter late last fall, looks at me full of confusion. 

He is locked into the barrel with three other yearlings from his enclosure, and has been transported over a thousand kilometers from the wildlife shelter back into his home region. I breathe in the spicy bear smell that wafts out of the barrel and tell the half grown cubs again that everything will be okay, that soon they will be free. If only they could understand. 

Or maybe they do know, because they have been travelling extremely well. We are transporting a total of ten bears in two barrels and three boxes, and there are no fights, not even stressed moans. Do they remember how they were transported this same route to the shelter last year as small orphaned cubs, so scared and distraught? 

Plumes of dust rise behind our vehicles as we rumble up the rough dirt roads to the remote release location picked by Conservation Officer Services. Finally a side valley opens to the left. We roll to a stop and angle the truck so the barrel points to the open area. The road dust settles and the only sound is the stream rushing down below. The bears are quiet, alert. This is it, the moment we've been working toward all these months. 

I am torn between overwhelming joy that our bears are finally free to go, free to live the life they are meant for, and overwhelming sadness that I will never see them again, will never know how it will work out for them. The first bear peeks out of the now open door of the barrel, sniffing, hesitating. A cautious jump and he's on the ground, starts scratching in the soil. His sister follows, takes a few steps. The third bear jumps out into freedom and immediately sprints for the trees, sends the other two running. And Berbere? I wait. Nothing happens. 

I look into the barrel and see he's clinging to the metal grate in the front, still looking at freedom through bars. Finally he lets go and slowly comes to the open door. He stops, sniffs the ground. I hold my breath. He hops down, looks around and hears one of the other yearlings huff in the trees. As if that is his signal to go, Berbere starts trotting off into the opposite direction. He briefly glances my way and seconds later breaks into a run. A jump into the undergrowth downhill, and then he's gone from my life, disappeared into a future without fences and food buckets. 

I hope his will be a rich and full life, and that he’ll make the most of the chances nature offers him. Berbere and hundreds of other animals wouldn’t be alive if it weren't for people calling in their sighting of an animal in distress, and the CO's decision to send the orphans to Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter founded by Peter and Angelika Langen 27 years ago. Wildlife rehab not only helps us to better understand these animals, and to mitigate some of the negative impact we as humans have on wildlife populations - it also highlights the incredible acts of kindness people are capable of. Berbere is one more symbol of that. Farewell, my friend.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Getting ready to say goodbye

The heavy log mounted between two posts in the bear enclosure is the latest victim. It has joined four other climbing trees, five den boxes and a piece of ceiling in the roofed part of the pen in spelling out an unmistakable message: my yearling bears want out. They are tearing apart everything they can get their paws on.

Spruce, my “problem child” for the longest time because of his lack of confidence, looks at me mournfully. The log between the posts was his favourite sleeping spot. Shooing him down so he would mingle more with the other bears was part of our morning routine, me shouting “hop, hop, hop” and waving the rake, he extending his upper lip to the extreme maximum into a very long, unhappy face. Spruce is quite possibly the longest lipped bear in existence.

“I’m sorry”, I tell him. Sorry that he who could never hang on to a den box now lost even this awkward sleeping spot, sorry that I won’t get “the lip” anymore, sorry that soon these thirteen bears will only be memories for me. And I’m sorry they will still have to wait a few more days until their releases back into the wild begin. They have grown in size and confidence, are so clearly ready to go. 

Just how ready these bears are to be returned to the wild when it comes to exposure to other humans was brought home to me just recently. Though it wasn’t my personal achievement, nothing made me prouder of my bears than seeing how they react to a strange person. The vet and his assistant came to give the approval for Huck, a bear who had been very sick in October and who has since fully recovered, to be released. 

As soon as the bears heard the unfamiliar voices, their noses went up to catch a whiff of these strange humans. In stark contrast to how they ignore the presence of me and my co-volunteer Brooke and just keep going about their business, all thirteen cubs fled up the climbing trees, huffing nervously, when the vet and his assistant approached the fence. Not a single bear wandered over to check them out. They all kept their distance.

I had heard from NLWS’s founders Peter and Angelika Langen that this would be how the bears react to strangers, but seeing it in action – witnessing how hard my cubs try to avoid people they don’t know – gave me goosebumps. The bears showed the same reaction when the camera team that is filming the second season of “Wild Bear Rescue” about the shelter arrived. I feel extremely confident that these cubs will show no inclination to approach humans once they have been released.

The behaviour of the bears is due to the fact that at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, they are being cared for by the same two or three people during their long months at the shelter. Exposure to other humans is limited to an extremely small number and kept strictly neutral (no positive experience such as getting fed) or negative (getting caught for a health check or transport). Because of this, the bears learn there is nothing to be gained from humans.

Spruce, bereft of his old perch, sits on his haunches, massaging his right front paw with the left one as he often does while watching me and my co-volunteer Brooke rake up the piles of poop. I wish I could tell him and the other bears that soon, they’ll be released into the lives they were meant to live where every day will be a new adventure. And I wish I could let them know how grateful I am for the incredible insights they’ve given me into bear behaviour.