Monday, June 7, 2010

Bear Bonding

The days have been so packed with visitors that there has seldom been any time lately to work closely with Chaik and Killisnoo. On the morning of my birthday (June 1), during a brief, uncommon lull, I spotted Chaik in the training room watching me from behind a wall of steel bars. I fed him some apples and lettuce and sat, talking to him very quietly. I told him that I wanted to know what bears think and feel and what they dream about when they sleep. Chaik watched me intently throughout, almost as if he were reading something in my body language or tone of voice, and then he slowly extended his paw through a small opening in the barrier. My heart pounding nervously - mostly with the fear of making him nervous - I reached out and touched his paw. He just sat there with his head lowered while I felt the pad underneath and traced the curve of the claws. He spread them and allowed me to run my fingers between them. My breath was caught in my throat and when I pulled away, he picked up an apple and walked back out into the enclosure. Not only was it the best birthday present I could have ever gotten, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life, one that was repeated almost verbatim the next afternoon. I felt like I had gotten my first taste of what it must be like to walk on the moon.

Meanwhile, Seek is ready to go and will be departing for Texas in the morning. After restoring his health, my next job was getting him used to being alone and traveling in a kennel. He didn't like either one ate first but adapted quickly to both. He plays wildly, though, and has a tendency to bite a little too hard during these bouts. I've been working to cure him of that, too, and am pleased to say that he's learned very, very well. Now during play he thrashes wildly if he grabs pant legs or jacket sleeves, but his bite on bare skin is so gentle that it tickles. On one of my last days with him, he became spooked by heavy machinery that was working nearby and jumped into my arms, holding onto me with a death grip, his little heart racing. I calmed him down by mimicking the cooing of a mother bear (thanks to Lynn Rogers and all his work for teaching me that). Afterwards he climbed onto my shoulders and onto my head. He fell asleep up there and - over the course of half and hour - slid down my arm, onto my lap, and off onto the ground. I'm deeply going to miss the little guy.

Fight For Life

Three weeks into my stint at Fortress of the Bear and the excitement is already overwhelming. Our two three-year-old grizzly bears, Chaik and Killisnoo, display an amazing intelligence and respond extraordinarily well to training, enrichment, and visitors. What is most interesting is how sociable they are toward us. They certainly don't have to be - we would feed them anyway - but they appear to react that way out of a willingness to be sociable, evidence of their ability to adapt to new situations. Equally interesting is how picky they are about what they do and do not eat, proving that bears are not the mindless garbage cans they are thought to be.

It's very interesting to see how well bears respond to being in captivity. Many other species of wild animals do not live as long in captivity as bears do. With an average lifespan of thirty years, most bears in the wild are lucky to live only a third of that time. In captivity, however, they can exceed their lifespan, sometimes living as long as forty to fifty years, particularly when they are well-cared for and given a diverse diet and a stress-free, enriched environment. I'm also excited to see that one of my earlier observations is apparently correct: they are reciprocal animals and give what they get. If treated with respect, they will return that respect.

While Chaik and Killisnoo have filled my time with wonder, fascination, and study, it is the new cub Seek (Tlingit for "black bear") that has filled my time with joy. Seek was found in the Excursion Inlet area 100 miles north of here in the middle of May by a fisherman. He had apparently been orphaned for at least a month, indicated by his being ten pounds underweight and only a third of the size that he should be at his age (five months), and could barely stand up or walk. He was trapped on a tidal flat with the water coming in and could not ecsape, so the man wrapped him in a blanket and took him to his cabin. Alaska Fish and Game then sent him to us, thinking that he was a brown bear cub. When they determined that he was actually a black bear, they told us that they were going to take him back and euthanize him, claiming that because black bears are found all across the country they are not "viable zoo animals" and that no one would be interested in seeing him.

Angry, we turned to anyone that we could for help: the local radio and television stations, the town biologist who is a big supporter of the work that we do, and tried to get some voices on our side. We told all of our guests what was going to happen and word began to spread around town. A "save the cub" petition was started onboard one of the cruise ships and Fish and Game began to receive a negative backlash from the community. Finally, the local radio personality contacted us and told us that he knew Jeff Corwin's people and that he would try to contact him in India, where he was shooting an episode of his show. A couple hours later, Corwin personally called us and told us that if they destroyed the cub, they would broadcast the story to the world and put Fish and Game in their place.

At 4:00 that afternoon, the showdown had begun. Fish and Game officials arrived to take the cub. We met them at the gate, refused to let them in, and told them there was no way they were taking the cub. Not wanting a confrontation, and already hit with a serious public backlash, the officials backed down and agreed to let the cub live. Of course, their damage control spin in the paper made us look paranoid and made them look better than they were, especially when they claimed they were only taking the cub for identification purposes. Two weeks later, Holly, one of the officials who came to take the cub, personally thanked us for saying no.

So, fortunately, Seek has been with us for the last three weeks. It's been a long process of nursing him back to health, but he's a fighter and was determined not to give up. Weighing only four and a half pounds when he arrived, he is now almost ten pounds, he has regained the use of his legs, improved his coordination, and has grown a thick, beautiful coat of fur. This week he transfers to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas. He will be deeply missed but I'll be planning to take a trip there somewhere down the road. I want to see him when he's grown up.