Kodiak bears are a large subspecies of brown bear, found only on the Kodiak archipelago off the Alaska coast. The population of Kodiak bears is considered to be healthy relative to populations of other brown bears, so there is no need to develop a breeding program. Consequently, bears orphaned on Kodiak are often left to their fate.
What follows is the story of a Kodiak bear orphan that was rescued, trained, and readied for location to the Orsa Grönklitt Bear Park in Sweden, where she and another cub, an unrelated male rescued on Kodiak earlier last year, will live their lives as ambassadors for their unique subspecies.
The saga began when the first cub lost his mother when she was killed in defense of property in a rural area 20 miles south of the city of Kodiak three months ago. Read the story of that cub and its rescue in the blog post The Long Journey of an Orphaned Kodiak Bear.
Now, News Watch contributing editor Jordan Schaul continues the story of the two bears with an account of the female cub rescued in December and now being trained to live in captivity.
By Jordan Schaul
The smaller, blond, female cub was given the name Shaguyik (sha-GUY-uk) by Alaska Fish & Game Biologist, Dr. Larry Van Daele. He indicated that Shaguyik is an Eskimo word used to refer to bears in instances when it is not appropriate to refer directly to the word for the ursine species. Shaguyik literally means “ghost” or “spirit”. As Larry said, and it has indeed become the case, “she will likely become known as Shaggy…”
I have come to know Shaguyik (aka Shaggy) over the past two months following her arrival at our facility, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). I picked her up at the airport in Anchorage and drove her back to the AWCC. She scared the day lights out of the cargo crew who delivered her to the airport in a large military dog crate. They flinched at almost every move she made from within the locked crate, but asked for photos of her in it nonetheless. I flinched too.
Photos by Doug Lindstrand
It wasn’t until her second day that I realized this bear was much different than Taquka. She was quite a bit smaller, almost one third smaller and a lot more aggressive and temperamental. I was hoping she would settle down, but as Larry will explain in my interview with him below, her rearing experience and environment helped shape a much different personality in this bear cub — a female cub whose smaller size was no indication of the hazards she would present compared to the unrelated male, Taquka.
On the day that we introduced the two cubs to each other in their primary outdoor enclosure it was quite apparent to even a casual observer as to how different the cubs were from each other.
Shaggy’s disposition was not far removed from a hungry and often irritable grizzly bear in the Interior and Taquka reminded people of the large bruins fishing alongside fly fisherman on the island of Kodiak.
Yet as unrelated cubs they bonded shortly after greeting one another. I should note that they still engage in some seemingly vicious encounters occasionally over food, but such instances are now few and far between.
To an outside observer, the noise and flying fur is often most alarming, but in the case of bear cubs, related or not, it is a means for working out some disagreement and establishing some social rank among young conspecifics, typically siblings. It would be extremely rare for such encounters to lead to an injury.
Photo by Doug Lindstrand
After we were confident that the cubs had been hot-wire conditioned — In other words, made well aware of the electric fence — we proceeded with an introduction. Some institutions prepare months in advance for animal introductions. The preparation depends much heavily on the species being introduced, their age, and gender, the composition of the group and their dispositions.
By the way, hot wire is commonly used to surround many dangerous captive animal enclosures as a primary and more often secondary deterrent. On occasion, by intention and sometimes by accident, I have touched the hot wire myself. It is not a terribly painful experience, but uncomfortable enough to clearly remind an animal or human of what is off limits. If anything, the shock comes as a surprise as such a thin strand of wire produces such an alarming shock. For example, when I was inadvertently shocked on top of the head it felt as though a mattress had fallen on me.
As soon as the cubs were together for a day or so, I tried to introduce some operant conditioning. From the onset, I could see that Shaggy was going to require much more patience (i.e., desensitization) and possibly a different approach than what was used to tame the male cub.
Photo by Doug Lindstrand
In the context of free contact training she is more dangerous, and so I elected to give both her and myself more space by approaching her only in the very spacious (several acre) outdoor enclosure and not inside the smaller holding and quarantine facilities as I had with Taquka.
The flight distance inside and outside are clearly different. In the large outdoor enclosure they know they can distance themselves. Inside there is nowhere to escape if someone enters their space and they become immediately apprehensive and defensive. In Shaggy’s case, she charges. So far choosing this strategy of working with the female cub outdoors seems to have been a good decision.
Compared to the male, her bluff charges are still much more frequent and full-on, if you will, and so I have taken much more precaution with her.
Larry described Taquka as a “Tasmanian Devil” at one point. Forgive the expression, but I would describe Shaggy as a Tasmanian Devil on steroids relative to the disposition of the male cub.
Photo by Doug Lindstrand
While Taquka had learned to station, sit, stand, raise a paw to acknowledge the onset of a training session among other behavior cues, Shaggy, who learns as rapidly if not more so than Taquka, is extremely food=motivated. Hence, she is persistent in approaching me and so I skipped some commands and taught her to target various inanimate objects.
They both responded very well to target training, but it was apparent that with Shaggy, teaching her to target objects like tree stumps and miscellaneous objects was the most effective way to keep her at a distance. She would stand up and place both forepaws on an object and I would positively reinforce her with a grape or grapes. I encouraged this constructive behavior because it was incompatible with her usual tendancy to charge me.
As inferred earlier she was not as responsive to the behavior cue requesting her to station in one area, or at or on a mobile platform like on a wooden board. I suspect that she had somehow learned in the proximity of people that if she charged them she would elicit a certain response, or she observed her mother doing so. As Doug Suess, the trainer of Bart the famed Kodiak bear, once said, “Bears are easy to train, but hard to tame.”
Photo by Doug Lindstrand
Photo by Jordan Schaul
Interview with Alaska Fish & Game Biologist, Dr. Larry Van Daele
Jordan: These unrelated Kodiak cubs are somewhat of a rare find. Typically you allow nature to run its course when cubs on Kodiak are discovered. The population of brown bears on Kodiak is quite healthy relative to many other brown bear populations, and although they are a distinct subspecies there is no current need to develop a breeding program for Kodiak bears anywhere.
In this case, an acclaimed carnivore conservation center which manages the Orsa Bear Park in Sweden has been working with you for several years to obtain an unrelated pair of cubs for display in an expansive, natural enclosure. Their facilities are similar to what we exhibit our rescue bears in at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Two orphaned cubs-of- the-year (COY) happened to become orphaned within a matter of weeks, presumably. With some foresight and luck you managed to capture the two cubs. Can you share just how extraordinary this sequence of events has been?
Larry: Even though brown bear females are typically very vigilant and protective mothers, occasionally some cubs are orphaned due to accidents, getting separated from their mothers, or mothers getting shot. Most of these instances occur in remote situations and are not reported to us.
In the few cases where orphans are seen and reported, it is rare that they are in situations where we can mobilize the resources necessary to capture them before they are either killed by other bears or accidents or wander away.
Photo of Larry Van Daele courtesy of Larry Van Daele.
Even if we were able to capture cubs, there are few facilities available to care for them properly for the 30 years or more they can live in captivity. Consequently, catching and exporting cubs from Kodiak does not happen very often. In the 30 years I have been associated with wildlife management on this island, we have only sent one cub off-island prior to this year (in 1999 a female 7-month-old cub was sent to the Milwaukee County Zoo).
Several years ago I met representatives from Orsa Gronklitt bear park in Sweden when they came to Kodiak for a visit. I was very impressed with their professionalism and passion for teaching people about bears and other large carnivores in a balanced manner.
When I visited their park, I was even more impressed with the facility due to the size and layout of the enclosures and the dedication of the staff to the welfare of the animals. When they expressed interest in obtaining Kodiak bears, I told them that it was rare that such an opportunity presented itself and that due to the strict requirements we had on acceptable homes for orphaned cubs, we usually did not try to save them and “let nature take her course”.
In spite of this information, Orsa Gronklitt continued to explore the possibility of getting Kodiak bears and assured me that theirs was a special place. After much research and on-going discussion, I agreed that if cubs became available, their facility would be the first on our list for a long-term loan of a pair of Kodiak bears.
For some reason, 2010 was the “year of the orphan bear”. By late summer we had two reports of abandoned cubs-of-the-year wandering around alone in the vicinity of remote cabins. Within a week or so, the mothers returned to those cubs and the families went off together.
In early fall a similar situation came up on the Kodiak road system about 10 miles south of town — a little cub was walking alone along the road. I went out to investigate and we were able to find the rest of his family and get them back together — he had apparently gotten stuck on the wrong side of the road when they crossed and traffic resumed.
In October, we received another report of orphaned cubs-of-the-year, this time near a logging road on Afognak Island. Unfortunately, we knew that these cubs were truly orphaned because their mother had been shot after she attacked a deer hunter.
We mobilized our team and set out for Afognak on a crisp fall morning a couple days after the incident. When we arrived we found the three cubs on their mother’s carcass in a clearcut. We sneaked up as close as possible, but the cubs skittered off before we could get a shot with the tranquilizer rifle and headed toward another family with three young cubs. Although we could not be sure, it seemed likely that that family adopted the orphans.
A month later we captured Taquka and you already know that story.
Jordan: How did you hear about her (Shaggy)?
Larry: On Monday, December 6, I got a call in the evening from the State Troopers reporting a small lone cub near some homes immediately behind the Walmart store in Kodiak city. I suggested the Troopers leave the cub alone because its mother was probably nearby and would soon find her cub.
Later that evening, another call came from resident who lived about a mile away — the cub was curled up and sleeping near their door. Even though the house was only about a half mile from my house, the cub was gone when we arrived.
The next day we continued to get calls from local residents as the cub made its way through subdivisions, between houses and around dogs and chicken coops. A fresh skiff of snow made tracking possible as long as the cub stayed out of the trees. It was evident that she was alone and that she knew her way around the neighborhoods, finding holes in fences and avoiding dangerous areas.
The calls and tracking continued most of the day Wednesday as I tried to find this little ghost. On Wednesday night things got even more exciting when she showed up in a trailer court. The phone was ringing off the hook as folks called my home and cell reporting that she was cornered by a group of young folks who were poking at her and discussing ways to catch her.
I met a State Trooper at the scene and while he dispersed the crowd and talked to folks, my wife and I looked for the cub. Hilary was the first to see her as the cub came out from behind a fence and trotted right next to me in the dark, eventually heading into some trees.
Jordan: Where did you capture her?
Larry: There were no reports on Thursday and we hoped that the cub had finally tired of its big adventure and headed back to find its mother. All hopes were dashed at 2:30 pm, however, when a call came from the same trailer court. The cub was seen climbing out of a large spruce tree hanging over a sea cliff, and heading back toward the trailers.
Once again my pursuit of the little bugger began as I went between the cliff and the trailers following the reports of frantic residents and barking dogs. Finally, about an hour later I found her eating a piece of ham put out by a well-meaning home owner. When I approached her she expressed her joy at seeing me by charging and growling.
I contemplated how best to handle this situation. I had hoped to give her another day to try to reunite with her mother, but I now had a situation where she was in a high-density human area surrounded by onlookers and kids coming home from school. Just letting her go was not an option, but I was not anxious to use a dart rifle with high-powered tranquilizers in that situation either.
Fortunately with the help of some of the neighbors, we were able to coax her into an area between two trailers near a back door. I went through the trailer to the back door, leaned out and administered the tranquilizer with a jab stick while she was watching the crowd. She initially ran away from the trailer toward a cliff, but she changed her mind and went between a couple of other trailers where she started feeling the effect of the drugs within 90 seconds. She went to sleep about 3 minutes later and we carried her back to my truck where we put her in a dog kennel and transported her to a holding cage (the same one we used for Taquka) at the ADF&G warehouse. The next afternoon she was off to Anchorage via Northern Air Cargo.
Jordan: Can you briefly describe the difference in their personalities and what you attribute some of the differences to.
Larry: I speculate that Taquka grew up in a more remote area and his mother taught him that in the rare case you see a person you need to flee or defend yourself. Shaggy, however, seemed to be more street-wise. Based on her behavior when I was tracking her, she probably grew up around people and civilization. Her mother probably taught her that the best way to react when people were near was to hide and stay still (similar to what fawns do), and if that does not work then it’s time to climb a tree.
Jordan: You have visited both the Orsa Bear Park and the AWCC on multiple occasions. Can you comment on why you felt both organizations were appropriate for these cubs or any cubs for that matter?
Larry: As I noted earlier, it is a rare opportunity to capture Kodiak cubs and even rarer for me to authorize exportation of those cubs to a captive facility. I have visited many captive bear facilities around the world, and I have seen that Orsa Gronklitt and AWCC are both unique in that they not only provide large open areas and enrichment opportunities for brown bears, but they also have staff and a corporate culture that respects the animals and make a commitment to balanced public education.
When placed in such a situation, bears are not just ways to make a profit or entertain large numbers of people, they truly become ambassadors for their species and for the possibility for bears and people to co-exist. Consequently, rather than being condemned to a life imprisonment, the bears have the opportunity to live an interesting and productive life and may serve to save the lives and habitats of their wild colleagues.
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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