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Rehabilitating Black Bear Cubs

~wildlife education~

At last count, the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre (NIWRA) had nine orphaned bear cubs in its care. Too much early contact by humans can result in a bear’s habituation or dependence on people, resulting in “nuisance bears”, looking for food in people’s backyards or garbage. Sadly, these bears, if they become repeat offenders, are usually shot to protect the public. Orphaned bear cubs often end up at NIWRA.

NIWRA’s Black Bear Rehabilitation Program has been operating for almost 30 years and was designed to prevent habituation and ensure success in the wild. We work closely with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development, and our program is overseen by the Conservation Officer Service and Ministry biologists and veterinarians, who ensure that orphaned cubs who are being considered to come into our care are good candidates for release. The Ministry's Senior Wildlife Biologists and Veterinarians also have the final word on any cubs that are released back into the wild after our rehabilitation program.

While here, the cubs in our care move through three stages over approximately one year before being released.

When cubs are admitted, they are housed in our ‘nursery’ area. Depending on its age when it arrives at NIWRA, a cub may need to be fed with a syringe or bottle, but this stage never lasts long. We endeavour to transition the cubs to eating independently as soon as possible.

Once the cubs reach approximately 10kg (22lbs), they are moved to our ‘grow-out’ area. This area consists of four separate rooms (two indoor and two outdoor). Staff enter the grow-out area once per day and scare the bears into another room so we can clean and hide food throughout the enclosure. This is done using loud noises and yelling, and, while it’s not the most fun part of our jobs, it ensures that the cubs maintain a healthy fear of humans. We are essentially ‘training’ them to avoid humans.

After 1-2 months in the grow-out area, the cubs are sedated, given a medical examination, and moved to our pre-release enclosure. There, they are fed through ports and will not have any human contact until the time comes for them to be released. The enclosure is open to the sky, meaning that eagles and ravens are also able to come down for scraps.

Natural sounds such as bird calls are played in the enclosure. This is to prepare them for the variety of sounds they will hear when they are released, so they won't find the forest full of strange and perhaps frightening sounds. Artificial scents mimicking natural forest smells are also introduced into the bear cubs’ enclosure so they will get used to these odours, and find the forest a natural place for them when they are released.

Their temporary home is equipped with a variety of sleeping benches, and gymnasium equipment to help the bears gain strength, balance, and agility – attributes they will need to survive in the wild.

The cubs are fed a variety of food to approximate what they would be eating in the wild. Since they cannot be taught how to hunt and feed, it is hoped that the diet at the Centre and their natural instincts will serve them well when they are released. This is called “enhancement.”

We try to match the seasonal availability of various food sources. They are given grass in the spring, berries in summer, apples and other fruit all year round, and fish and red meat later in the year. They are given branches with leaves throughout the year. The leaves are a natural food, and they need to gnaw the bark from the branches in the fall to help “plug them up” in preparation for their winter hibernation. Old logs are also brought into the enclosure to initiate insect colonies to provide another natural food source for the young bears.

Once they are ready to be released, the cubs will again be sedated, examined, and taken to an undisclosed remote location by the Conservation Officer Service. It is important that the release site has plenty of food available and that they are not released into habitats already heavily defended by adult bears, which could threaten a cub’s survival.

They are fitted with a GPS collar that will naturally break off after one year, which enables Conservation Officers to monitor the movement of the cubs after release. Thanks to this data, we know all of the bears we have released have been successful for at least their first year, with each cub successfully denning in a remote location by their first wild winter.

In the nearly 30 years we have been rehabilitating black bears, we have never had a cub who displayed signs of habituation, or anything less than a healthy fear of humans. In the wild, black bears who have not encountered humans may have some level of curiosity regarding them. The cubs in our care learn to associate us with danger. Their natural response is to run away from us. This means that they are associating running away from humans with safety, and this is exactly what our program was designed to do.

Because of the need to keep human contact to a minimum, viewing the black bear cubs in care at NIWRA is only via video monitors.

You can learn more about black bears at the Centre, and visit Rae, our non-releasable adult bear. Please help the wildlife in care at NIWRA by making a financial contribution on our secure website. Thank you so much for caring about wildlife!




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