Lori and Dean at their temporary home at the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter. Both bears are planned to be released later this year thanks to the grizzly bear rehabilitation project; the first world-wide.

Grizzly rehabilitation project going well

They may look cute and cuddly, but don't expect them to walk up to greet you.

They may look cute and cuddly, but don’t expect them to walk up to greet you.

That’s the way it should be, Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter operator Angelika Langen said, looking into the enclosure where Bella Coola natives Lori and Dean are, along with their grizzly cousins Jason and Drew.

Theirs is a sad story, beginning with the tragic loss of their mother, quickly followed by the loss of their sister. Once the twins were two-thirds of a set of triplets, who were learning the tricks of the wild from their mother.

Not far from where they were was another grizzly, this one with twins. They’d been causing a disturbance and a conservation officer was flown in to trap them, however he’d inadvertently trapped Lori, Dean, and their sister, with an anxious (and very ticked off) mother waiting on the outside. To save his life, the CO was forced to shoot the mother bear, leaving the triplets orphaned.

“It was very unfortunate, and he felt really bad about it,” Langen said, who was called in to collect the triplets.

After a day long trip in an enclosure, the triplets found themselves 1,065 kilometres away, completely away from everything they’ve known after witnessing their mothers death.

A day after that, the youngest female died. She was significantly skinnier than her two siblings, so at the time they thought maybe she was malnourished, but autopsy results have since shown that she would have died regardless, as she had inflammation of the brain.

“She just happened to die when she got here,” Langen said. “But Lori and Dean are fine, they’re doing good.”

Lori was always amiable, Langen said, who made the shelter her new home really quickly, settling in and getting into a routine. A very playful individual, she’s always the first one to check out anything new that the bears may encounter.

“She’s always the leader,” Langen said. “She’s really smart, so the others fall behind her.”

Dean, on the other hand, didn’t have a good time. It’s not uncommon for bears to mourn when they lose loved ones, Langen said, who wasn’t surprised when Dean started showing signs of being angry and out of sorts.

“Dean was mad, and that’s a big bear to deal with when he comes flying at you and he’s angry,” Langen said. “We would be coming by the fence and he would just crush the fence and be really mad at us.”

It took a few weeks, but he finally settled down, Langen said. Lori’s attitude helped, she added.

All four grizzlies are slated for release in June. They will be fitted with a radio collar that will track them to see where they go and will be checked occasionally. They’ll be looking to see if these bears are eating the same as their wild-raised cousins and avoiding humans as they should be doing.

“The black bears that we’ve rehabbed tend to avoid humans more than any wild bear does,” Langen said, and so far, the released grizzlies have shown the same tendency.

They’ll go back to where they were collected; at this time, all four grizzlies were collected from Bella Coola. It’s important to release them from where they were originally from to keep a balance in the ecosystem as well as keep genetic lines separate.

“If we were to release 36 bears in the Bulkley Valley, I think that would upset the natural balance,” Langen said. “It’s really important to keep the animals in with their natural groups.”

Hopefully, they’ll move on from their tragic time to survive as strong adults; for Dean, this means finding his own turf and a girlfriend (or a few), for Lori, this means raising her own young.

But their story may have been drastically different were it not for the services that the shelter provides. In this scenario, either they would have been killed outright or shipped to a zoo. Dean’s chances of survival would be fairly minimal, as most zoo’s already have a male grizzly. Lori would have better chances as a female, but it would have depended on the demand from the zoos, and their lives would never have been the same again. A black bear would have been killed on the spot.

“Black bears are not as showy, people are not as interested in black bears,” Langen said.

“This new program that we’re running is the first in the world to try grizzly rehabilitation,” Langen said.

Lori and Dean are the third set of six that will prove whether or not the program is successful; so far, it seems to be working extremely well, Langen said. Grizzlies, who are extremely intelligent, need to be handled differently than black bears: they need cranial stimulation to keep them active and also need to be released a year sooner than they would if they were with their mother to keep the human contact down to a minimum.

There was a concern that as the bears would be smaller the rehabilitation project may not work, Langen said, but so far this hasn’t been true. The two sets that have been released so far have done well, adapting to their homes and have survived thus far, avoiding humans as they go.

February 21 was declared International Save Bears Day, a day to raise awareness of the issues facing bears and what we can do to help. By donating $120 to the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, one can provide the funds required to cover the rescue mission, the medical care, the feeding and housing requirements during rehabilitation and the release expenses for one bear. Go to www.wildlifeshelter.com/donate.htm to find out more.