Wednesday, November 6, 2002

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Smarter Than the Average Bear
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Black bear 00-1805 was the 39th bear cub to be received by the PAWS Wildlife Department. To date PAWS has received a total of 42 bears, but 00-1805 is the only one whose case number has remained in my memory. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that his was the first bear release I was responsible for as PAWS Naturalist. As memorable as the release was, however, it was the behavior of the bear at the center on the morning of his release that left the most lasting impression.

In early June of 2000, the PAWS Wildlife Department received a call from Ashford, WA. The caller had been seeing three bear cubs in her back yard for several days and was concerned that they had been orphaned or abandoned. Another staff member and I traveled to Ashford to assess the situation. We arrived to find that two of the cubs had disappeared.

Horned Grebe

A horned grebe, being treated for a wing laceration, relaxes in a pool at PAWS.

The third was still in the area, skinny and clearly in need of help. As he would prove in a more surprising fashion at a later time, this cub was very capable of avoiding capture. I managed to get a net over him as he scrambled up the trunk of a tree, but the 10-pound bear easily bent the rim of the net and continued upwards and out of reach. The cub was not quite as adept at avoiding the tranquilizer dart of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife agent who brought him to us on June 12th, 2000.

Douglas Squirrel

A Douglas squirrel pauses briefly during his release on October 16th.

Once at PAWS, cub 00-1805 adapted well to his new surroundings. Although he was the only bear the center received in 2000, and thus had no cage mates, he was very skilled at entertaining himself. During his stay, he used a piece of cage furniture (a Dogloo) as a rocking chair, used old Christmas trees as chew toys, and practiced his diving skills in a water trough. As enjoyable as this was for the bear, it was even more enjoyable for the staff and volunteers who watched him via closed circuit camera.

Although PAWS prefers to release bears into dens during their hibernation, 00-1805 was over-wintered at the center due to a skin condition that required treatment. The treatment of the skin condition caused him to be awake well into the winter, so he never fully entered his winter sleep. By the time spring rolled around, the cub was 145 pounds heavier than he had been at admit. His skin condition had resolved and he was healthy and ready for release.

Release day came on April 23, 2001. In order to avoid the need to tranquilize the bear to get him into a transport crate, the wildlife center staff had devised a plan. A week prior to the release date, we had placed the crate (made out of welded aluminum) in the bear's cage and removed the door so it was just an open container. Each day leading up to the release we had placed "treats" (fish, berries, etc.) in the crate to try to convince the bear that it was a safe place. It seemed to work. He entered the crate on a regular basis to grab the food and even retreated to it when threatened. When the door to the cage that contained the crate was closed the night before release to deny him access, he made it clear that he was not pleased by banging around in his other cages and generally making a spectacle of himself. On the morning of the 23rd we rigged up the door of the transport crate to a pulley and cable system hoping that we could simply drop it when the bear entered the crate to get his food. The trap was set and the door to the cage was opened.

Fox Release

Raised at the PAWS Wildlife Center, this male red fox regained his freedom on September 1st.

Cub 00-1805 clearly showed signs that he smelled the berries, smelt and other morsels that were waiting for him at the back of the crate. He entered the cage sniffing at the air and headed straight to the transport crate. He noticed, however that something had changed. He sniffed the door of the crate and chewed on it a little bit. He wandered around to the back of the crate to see if he could get at the food without going inside. He walked again to the front of the crate and pawed at the door a bit more. While all of this was happening I was standing outside of the cage door waiting to release the cable that would spring our little trap. The bear periodically looked in my direction as he examined the changes to his crate. Finally, realizing that he couldn't get at the food any other way, the bear started to enter the crate.

Just as I started to feel proud of myself for outsmarting a bear, he laid down flat on his stomach with his hindquarters sticking out of the crate and reached out with his front paws. I was both amused and annoyed at the same time. He managed to stretch just far enough to hook a strawberry with his claw and then backed out of the crate quickly while stuffing the prize in his mouth. He retreated to the opposite end of the cage and began to threaten me with stomps and snorts. Bear 1, Wildlife Staff 0. He approached the transport carrier a few more times but it was abundantly clear that he didn't intend to enter in light of the changes we had made. Eventually, two staff members climbed onto the roof of the cage. The bear was far more afraid of the sight of people above him than the prospect of being trapped in the carrier. He ran inside and I was able to drop the door. The door was padlocked, the bear was loaded into the truck and he was off to his release site near Mt. Rainier.

The thing that makes this little scenario so puzzling is that this bear had never had any experience with being trapped in a carrier in this manner. He had the run of 5 large cages while he was at the center though, and each was divided from the other by a sliding steel door. Although the configuration was very different, he may have still recognized some similarity in the setup. I will never know how clear his understanding of the situation really was, but in my mind cub 00-1805 will always be remembered as an individual that was smarter than the average bear...

Wildlife Release tally: October 16 to October 29, 2002

7 Douglas Squirrels
8 Northern Flying Squirrels
1 Rhinoceros Auklet
12 Eastern Gray Squirrels
3 Glaucous-winged Gulls
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
1 Virginia Opossum

Wildlife Release tally: 2002 Year to Date
1,144 animals

All rights reserved. 2002 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

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