Four orphaned bear cubs get a second chance

Published: Apr. 13, 2016 at 6:00 PM PDT
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Four orphaned black bear cubs huddle together in a small kennel at Animal Ark. A pair of faces peer shyly from what appears to be a furry mound.

They are the latest tenants at this animal sanctuary north of Reno.

Most who arrive here are rescued unable to return to the wild. They're here to stay. That's not the goal in this case.

They were born under a walkway of a home in Stateline at Lake Tahoe. The homeowner told wildlife officials she thought bobcats had taken up residence there. Instead they found an 18-year-old female bear and four cubs.

"Twins are fairly common," says Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy, "Three is like wow, but four....."

Also unusual was the age of their mother, well-past the time of life when sows are giving birth. It's possible the strain contributed to her death. She was found leaning over a fallen tree trunk by wildlife personnel who saw the radio-equipped collar they'd put on her stopped moving last week.

They rounded up her cubs over the weekend and made the call to Animal Ark. They safe for now, but without her they are going to need a lot of help in the months ahead.

They are tiny --about 7 pounds apiece--and, of course cute, but they have a long way to go. The goal is to get them ready for hibernation and a release to the wild.

It's been done a number of times before, but cubs usually arrive at a rescue sanctuary in ones or twos and usually in the summer or fall. Four cubs this young at once will be a challenge.

"Getting them in the springtime is different," says Diana Hiibel of Animal Ark. "It's also a long-term commitment. There's a lot involved in having cubs here this young."

They'll be kept isolated, seen by visitors at Animal Ark only on video. That's a key to keeping them wild. The other goal is for them to grow, put on weight, eating what a wild bear should eat.

"We want the bears to have a very good diet that's going to give them a good edge being released back to the wild. So, we try not to give them processed foods. We give them as close as we can to what would be natural for them."

The bad news is they won't have their mother to teach them the ropes in the months ahead, but that's also good news. She'd become an urban bear and it's likely what she would have taught them would eventually put them at risk.

"These cubs probably would have turned into the "juvenile delinquent" cubs that are taught by birth mothers to become garbage bears," says Healy. "With this we're probably going to be able to put them into a place where, hopefully they become wild bears."

What they've got going for them now is experience. The Department of Wildlife and Animal Ark have done this a number of times before. In recent years, 22 orphaned cubs have arrived here. Seventeen were released to the wild. Only three became problem bears.

When captured, the cubs had been without their mother for a couple days. It's highly unlikely they could have survived without her much longer.

"It's the best course to take," says Healy. "and it's the one where if all the animals remain wild, that's a success story."

"They bring us the cubs when they need to be brought in," says Hiibel.. "These guys deserve a second chance and we're glad to part of that."

But it won't be easy on anyone. This is an unplanned long-term commitment and it won't be cheap.

At the moment the cubs are consuming an expensive formula and as they ease onto solid food, they'll need to eat well--meats, fish, pine nuts, fruits and other produce. Eventually it will take $100 a week to feed each one.

The staff at Animal Ark is hoping public support will help make that happen. To find out more click on the link provided.