Bear rehab center breaking ground
Vail, CO Colorado
ATLANTA, Idaho ” Jabbed with tranquilizers, her ear pierced with a green ID tag, “Twister” finally traded her steel transport box for freedom after a bumpy 90-mile ride into central Idaho’s mountains.
The yearling black bear orphan stepped from an open cage onto a dusty truck bed, dropped softly to earth and disappeared into the timber.
Twister was separated from her mother by a freak mountain tornado last June.
Raised at the Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation Center in Boise, Idaho’s suburbs, the 7-pound weakling grew big on formula, apples and dog food. Twelve months later, she’s a 100-pounder ready for the wild.
“I didn’t think she was going to survive,” confesses Sally Maughan, the bear rescue operation founder. “She couldn’t stand on her own two legs.”
Maughan and John Beecham, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist she works with, have saved hundreds of orphaned black bears from Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah since the center opened in 1989.
Today, they field phone calls from bear rehabilitators in Turkey, South Korea and Pakistan seeking advice on how to help their own orphan and often endangered bears. China, just beginning to return its giant pandas to the wild, is also interested in their work.
The London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, which helps pay Maughan’s $35,000 annual budget, also hopes her work convinces people around the globe that rehabilitating orphan bears like Twister, then releasing them deep in the forest, is better than jailing them in concrete cells or turning them into a gypsy’s dancing clown.
“The general perception is cubs need to learn from their mothers and orphaned cubs will never survive,” said Victor Watkins, wildlife director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. “We can prove that bear rehab and release can work and can be successful.”
Rehabilitation is a task made no easier by incidents like the rare black bear attack June 17 at a Utah campsite that killed an 11-year-old boy ” and reinforced the image of the dangerous bear.
Of the nearly 150 bears rescued by Maughan’s center since 1989, just two are known to have become “nuisance bears” and had to be destroyed, she said. For the last three years, Beecham has documented the success of 19 orphaned cubs outfitted with radio collars. Even bears like Twister that must be bottle fed every two hours have thrived in the wild, he said.
“Bears are solitary creatures. It’s a natural process to break away from their caretaker,” Beecham said. “We just have to make sure they don’t think any person they come across is going to be a source of food.”
Majestic grizzlies are America’s poster bear, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spending millions to help them recover around Yellowstone National Park. By contrast, there are some 20,000 black bears in Idaho alone.
But every year, dozens of cubs are orphaned, some when hunters shoot their mothers during twice-yearly hunts. Others are abandoned during droughts that make food scarce. And some, like Twister, fall victim to nature’s whims.
Deb Davis, a retired professor from the University of Alaska, lives in the unincorporated central Idaho town of Bear, where a June 4, 2006, tornado leveled about $9 million worth of timber. She remembers hearing whimpering outside her window two days later, but left the bear cub alone, figuring its mother was nearby.
A week later, the bear turned up at a neighbor’s home, dehydrated and helpless.
“She fit in my hands. I held her in my lap and I rubbed her paws,” Davis said. “I said ‘Twister,’ hang in there.”
In May, Beecham organized a workshop at a bear sanctuary in remote western Russia. Scientists from the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding who aim to return their iconic black-and-white bears to the central China mountains attended, and hope to use Maughan’s and Beecham’s work in Idaho as a model to help win government and popular support for their efforts.
“The experiences of rehabilitation and reintroduction with other bear species is valuable in planning for the eventual reintroduction of giant pandas,” Kati Loeffler, a German veterinarian at Chengdu, told the AP in an e-mail. “The situations in Idaho and in remote areas of Canada are almost ideals that we can use as guidelines.”
At Twister’s release in the Boise National Forest on July 28, she was joined by four other bears ” two females, two males ” as Beecham and observers including Deb Davis bid a final goodbye.
Twister trotted quickly off, while others just moseyed from their cages calmly. One climbed a tree, lounging on a low branch. A 170-pound male named “Buddy” sniffed flowers near a photographer, looking for something to eat.
After a week in the forest, however, they’re more likely to crash off into the trees at the sight of humans, said Maughan, who still remembers her first orphan bear, 18 years ago.
“Within a matter of two weeks, that bear had me totally and completely wrapped around its paw,” she said.
– Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation Center: http://www.bearrehab.org/
– World Society for the Protection of Animals: http://www.wspa-international.org