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The Long Journey of an Orphaned Kodiak Bear

In the instant that a female Kodiak bear was shot dead on Alaska’s Kodiak Island last month, life changed irrevocably for her baby cubs. The mother had made the fatal error of wandering into a human settlement and, as normally happens when large wild carnivores come into contact with people, she paid with her life.

Abandoned juvenile bears struggle to survive. They typically perish from starvation or as prey of other bears. But what followed in the case of one of the cubs orphaned on Kodiak was a remarkable chain of events that involved a large team of biologists and conservationists, transport by land and air, medical treatment, training to adapt to people — and ultimately a new life in captivity on the other side of the world.

The bitter-sweet story serves as a lesson to all of us of the consequences of how we manage our co-existence with our wild neighbors — and it illustrates some of the effort involved in rescuing orphaned bears and finding zoos to give them homes. In captivity, they live their lives, ambassadors for their species and the wilderness they left behind.

By Jordan Schaul

When bear cubs are left to fend for themselves, especially when less than a year old, they are not skilled or large enough to hunt with great success on their own, and unfortunately, they are also easy prey for larger bears.

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Taquka, the Kodiak bear cub working with AWCC’s Jordan Schaul. Kodiak bears are a particularly large subspecies of brown bear, endemic only to the Kodiak archipelago off the Alaska coast.

Photo by Doug Lindstrand

When someone takes the life of a bear, and particularly a bear with cubs, they draw outrage. And we at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) are just as disturbed about such a preventable situation.

Helpless cubs could be left to their fate or euthanized — but that’s not fair. They could be rescued — but does such an intervention compensate for the human-induced casualty?

We much prefer to see cubs with their moms and grow up wild than serve as animal ambassadors in captivity. Yet we also can’t turn our backs on a vulnerable cub or cubs. We wouldn’t do that to captive born and reared offspring.

So it was with heavy hearts that we acceded to a request to hold an approximately ten-month-old male Kodiak bear cub, who along with two siblings lost its mother when she was killed in defense of property in a rural area 20 miles south of the city of Kodiak in early November. Kodiak is a 20,000-acre island in the archipelago.

Alaska State Troopers Report

On November 7, Dr. Larry Van Daele, a veteran wildlife biologist, member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group Coordinator’s Committee, Project Leader for the Northern Forum Brown Bear Working Group, and area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game on Kodiak Island, received a report from the Alaska State Troopers regarding some bear cubs that were hanging around a residence off the coast of Chiniak Bay. Kodiak’s commercial airport and the largest Coast Guard base in the North Pacific are all located near Chiniak Bay, which sits to the northeast of Kodiak, the second largest island in the United States.

Larry had recently been in correspondence with zoologists at a captive carnivore facility in Sweden regarding their interest in Kodiak bear cubs. Knowing that the prospects of the Chiniak Bay cubs being adopted by another sow with cubs was highly unlikely, and that cubs would not survive on their own in the wild, Larry recruited two biologists from Alaska Fish & Game and a USFWS biologist with the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge to assist with the capture of the juvenile bears.

After a brief search of the area, the cubs were found near the shore of Chiniak Bay, in grass flats between the river and the sea in the vicinity of the residence where the sow, their mother, had been shot.

Once the team neared, the cubs took off across a field. The dominant and likely eldest cub climbed a spruce tree, where it was tranquilized with a dart. Following the quick sedation, one of the biologists climbed the tree and carefully retrieved the cub, handing the 83-pound baby bear down to the next biologist in a human “chain.’”

The cub was placed in a dog kennel for the ride back to Kodiak, where, with great innovation, the biologists placed him in an aluminum crate normally used as a bear deterrent for brooding king salmon. As Larry said, if it was good enough to keep bears out, it was good enough to keep one in.

‘Aggressive as a Tasmanian Devil’

According to Larry, over the next few days the cub, which he named Taquka (the Yupik/Alutiiq word for brown bear), slept, rolled around and snuggled with a portion of his mother’s hide Larry gave him to make him feel secure.
In an effort to induce hibernation, or at least start the process, the cub’s crate was placed in a warehouse with the temperature lowered. Larry described Taquka’s behavior over the next few days as identical to that of an adult brown bear: “Calm if in control, warning [you] if you get to close, and striking out if you are perceived as an immediate threat.” He said the cub became as aggressive as a Tasmanian devil when his water was changed. But this, Larry surmised, was all appropriate behavior for a bear in good health.

Back in Portage, my colleague Matt was coordinating plans to pick up Taquka with me and Steve Mendive, our bear training and conditioning expert and AWCC Board Member. Steve had coordinated the entire transport and exchange with Larry, as he is currently tasked with heading up special projects as an interim staff member.

Taquka was scheduled to come out on the next available flight, but harsh weather precluded the bear from flying to Anchorage on schedule.

On November 12 (three days later), we got an indication from Larry that the flight carrying the cub would arrive about 4:40 p.m.

I drove from Anchorage to Portage just moments before Matt arrived with the cub. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Center and I could barely make out the large dog kennel-size crate in the bed of the truck.

Black Bears Moved Out

I was not sure how much of the sedative had worn off by the time the cub arrived. He had been sedated just before making the trip to minimize the stress of travel, new situations, and new people. Matt had moved the black bears out of their winter denning site to provide room for the new cub. The black bears would have to overwinter in the cabin in their enclosure.

Matt got on the back of the truck and lowered the crate to me. We slowly walked the crate back to the den and everyone helped coax the musk ox calf out of the way. I will say that it is the first time that I had to maneuver around a curious musk ox while transporting a bear, but I smiled to think they might become friendly as neighbors for the winter. Incidentally, it was a bear that took the life of the musk ox cow — the reason we had the orphan in one of our nursery pens.

It was cold out, as would be expected, and raining. We pulled the crate right up to the holding building’s doorway. The crate was about a meter high and more than a meter long and wide. I had turned the light on so that I could see what I was doing, but suspected the little cub could see much better than I could in the dark, and if anything the bright light was a disturbance.

Matt unlocked the crate and opened its door. I wondered if the little bear might come bolting out if the mild sedative had indeed worn off. But nothing happened. I turned off the light and asked everyone to tilt the crate up. The cub remained snug against the back, not uttering a sound.

Coaxed with a Prod

Finally, we coaxed him with a prod or two and he ventured just outside the front of the crate, fully exposed and fur on end. He was facing the entrance of the crate and we wanted him to walk inside the chain-link holding area. I prodded him again and he walked right in. Matt and I simultaneously closed the door and I took a deep breath. Taquka had arrived safe and sound.

Aside from a heavy parasite burden, he was in good shape. As anticipated, he became more aggressive and defensive as the sedative wore off and he acclimated to his new digs. We limited contact, hoping not to disrupt this critical period for a motherless cub preparing for first hibernation.

Taquka never did go down, so we decided to continue to let him feed for a while. My training skills were quite rusty and I had not handled a bear without protective contact (a barrier) in at least five years. One of the reasons I joined the center was because of Mike Miller, our director, and Steve Mendive’s phenomenal track record preparing rescued, wild brown bear cubs for captive life at zoos.

Jordan Schaul and Taquka.jpg

Steve was eager to see the training progress, given that my experience with polar bears and Kodiaks was based on protective-contact operant conditioning. I have worked with polar bears, sun bears, sloth bears, spectacled bears, and brown bears using this conventional zoo method, and had some experience with black bears and brown bears in what we call a free-contact training situation, where the trainer or keeper actually goes into the enclosure with the bear. At the AWCC we train both free-contact and protective-contact.

Jordan Schaul and Taquka

Photo by Jordan Schaul

To my surprise, my attempt to condition, train, and prepare the cub to be socialized with other captive bears in a free-contact situation using protective contact protocols led to great success. I don’t credit my ability to train (I’m probably of average skill), patience or comfort with a wild-caught carnivore, but rather the approach I took to training. I think both types of conditioning work, but a reliance on positive reinforcement alone may expedite the process in many regards.

Within a week, this wild Kodiak cub was learning the game, as we sometimes say. I would shape a behavior by asking the cub to touch a target with his snout or paw and to station or sit. In some cases I would capture the behavior. These are very basic behaviors that build the foundation for husbandry and medical training. For example, zoos holding giant panda can train the bears to participate in procedures involving ultrasound or the collection of blood without requiring any sedation. In many ways this is safer for the animals and the staff caring for them.

I was amazed. In the photo you can see Taquka responding to my command for raising his right paw to acknowledge the onset of a training session. He would hold his paw up in the air when I uttered the word “OK.” At first I used a whistle to bridge the behavior, and then the words “good boy, Taquka.” This is a simple behavior to capture or shape, but for me it demonstrated that this wild and “naive” bear cub understood the concept.

Taquka bear photo 3.jpg

Photo by Jordan Schaul

Bears are very smart, and a lot of trainers working with bears, whether they are performing for a documentary or responding for a medical procedure, share that bears are both easy and challenging to train based on anecdotal evidence that they can both reason with you, but also be quite manipulative.

We are on our way with this little guy thanks to all the work of AWCC staff. It’s a good feeling to be able to help acclimate a bear cub to what is realistically the only possible life for him, given his circumstances.

The human-animal bond is truly something to cherish, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work with this amazing animal, the monarch of the North American and Eurasian wilderness. It will be sad to see him leave. He will depart later this year for Sweden, and we are confident that our European colleagues will find him well adjusted.

Another recent success story concerns the fate of “Haines,” “Kenai,” and “Sadie.” All three cubs were rescued by the AWCC and were conditioned and cared for by staff at the Center prior to being relocated to their permanent home at the Minnesota Zoo. Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit opened in 2008 and features three rescued Alaskan brown bear cubs.

Some of the world’s largest bears are found in Russia’s Far East and Kamchatka, along with Coastal Alaska and the Kodiak Archipelago.

Virtual tour of bear exhibit at Minnesota Zoo.

According to Diana Weinhardt, a charter member and founding Chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Bear Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), and former Director of Conservation and Wildlife at AWCC: “In the early 1990s the AZA Bear TAG committee decided that all AZA facilities should cease breeding black and brown bears for zoological display. All zoos that wanted black or brown bears for exhibition were to contact the Bear TAG and ultimately a waiting list was created.

“Wildlife agencies such as the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, various other state agencies, and the USFWS were notified that if orphan or nuisance bears needed placement, the Bear TAG would work with them to place such animals.”

Diana added that the “program is still in existence today and considered pretty successful.”

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Photos of bears at Minnesota Zoo courtesy of Minnesota Zoo 

As a former staff member at AWCC, she knows first-hand how facilities such as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center provide short- and long-term animal care for the bears, while exhibits are built for them at zoological parks in the lower 48, such as the Minneapolis Zoo, and closer to the AWCC, like the Alaska Zoo. The Alaska Zoo also holds nuisance and orphaned bears destined for other zoological parks. I got a chance to meet two youngsters now on exhibit at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. These bears were held at the Alaska Zoo while some of their own permanent residents were cared for by the AWCC when they were juveniles.

Diana now serves as Curator of Northern Trail at Minnesota Zoo, which includes Russia’s Grizzly Coast. The bear exhibit won the  AZA exhibit award in 2009.

Video: Minnesota Zoo Grizzly Bears Destroy 500-Pound Pumpkin.

The most important aspect of the bear placement program is that every bear that comes into captivity has “a story.” In 90 percent of those stories “human interaction” is at the base of the situation. These stories are shared at zoological facilities that educate millions of zoo visitors every year, and I would add that they inspire people to be more cognizant of the human-bear interface and bear conservation in general.

At the Minnesota Zoo, Haines, Kenai and Sadie are some of the most popular animals, according to Diana. “In daily training sessions, naturalist staff narrate the training sessions and the stories are told. That is very important in Minnesota, as we have a resident population of black bears in the northern part of the state. We make every effort to educate our visitors about human behavior in bear country, to help prevent further incidents,” Diana says.

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Photo of bear with food truck at AWCC by Doug Lindstrand

The AWCC is building its own bear center, B.E.A.R.S., which will include an expansion of the 18-acre adult brown bear habitat and a new 14-acre habitat for our black bears. A building dedicated to bear conservation, education, and science will sit between the two natural enclosures full of water features and native vegetation.

The current natural ‘habitats’ draw wildlife photographers and documentarians from all over the world. We hope that the expansion will not only enhance the viewing experience for our guests, and advance our bear conservation programs, but we hope to continue to provide optimal care and the highest standards of welfare for our rescued bears, whether they are temporary residents or long-term ambassadors.

Jordan-Schaul.jpg

Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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From Interested Reader:

I was very touched by the story.  I don’t regularly read National Geographic but I really liked this piece. It was interesting to get an inside perspective on the many steps it takes to prepare and transport an animal like a bear from the wild to captivity.  As the author noted at the beginning, it’s is a bittersweet story but it sounds like captivity is often a growing reality as man continues to embark on territories that once belonged solely to wild animals.  It speaks to why we need to continue to support conservation programs around the world so we can at least help save these animals and provide for them if need be.