Over the nearly 30 years we have been rehabilitating wildlife, PAWS has treated deer, Elk, Cougars, and seals, but it is our work with Black Bears that has generated the most interest nationally and internationally. Sadly, these large mammals increasingly find themselves in harm's way as the footprint of human development expands into wild landscapes.
In collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), PAWS has worked with 61 bears, mostly orphaned cubs, but some adults and sub-adults. As with all wild patients, PAWS takes a hands-off approach to rehabilitation, raising cubs with minimal human contact so as to preserve their wildness. If we receive cubs who are still nursing, rehabilitators bottle-feed them while wearing a full bear costume to mask their human form. Once the cubs are weaned onto solid diets, we no longer have direct contact with them, unless we sedate them for a check-up.
Bears are housed in a series of interconnected, concrete-walled cages. Lowering guillotine doors between enclosures allows staff to clean and put out food without the bears observing - important to ensuring they don't associate food with humans. When closing bears off in one cage, one person watches on a closed circuit camera while communicating with door operators on a walkie-talkie. If the bears refuse to get out of their cozy den boxes to move to the next cage, a pulley system allows staff to lift the den box which prompts the bears to get moving.
Because Black Bears are highly intelligent, they require something interesting to do in captivity. PAWS has created a detailed enrichment program to decrease boredom and improve their quality of life. We offer bears a variety of items to encourage their natural behaviors and to help them hone their foraging skills, such as hiding food in rotten logs. We also provide pools, climbing structures and other enhancements to encourage physical activity.
Once the wildlife rehabilitation team has decided the bears are healthy and strong enough to be out on their own, WDFW helps PAWS choose remote release sites that are appropriate for each animal. Because of the increasing frequency of human/bear interactions, recent bear releases happen with the aid of the WDFW's Karelian Bear Dog program, primarily with WDFW Officer Bruce Richards and his dog Mishka.
During a release Mishka barks at and trails the bear as he bolts from the transport container. It is a frightening experience that hopefully reinforces in the bear's mind that humans and dogs are best avoided. After all, a healthy fear of humans is a bear's best defense, and this final, negative contact gives the bears the best possible chance of living a long life spent wild and free.
PAWS has been caring for five Black Bear cubs since winter. We will release them in the wild later this spring. Stay tuned to our new blog and our Wild Again e-newsletter on paws.org to read about and see photos of some of the releases.