by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Letting Them Go: A Story of Two Black Bears
Last week I picked up my friend, Liz White, and drove north into the southern fringe of boreal forests that are, among other things, home to the world’s richest concentration of bears. We met up with film-maker Stephen Best, and the next day we drove the short distance further to Bear With Us, the bear sanctuary quietly run by our friend, Mike McIntosh.
And there we met up with a miracle, a snuffling, snorting, bawling, curious and ever-so-beautiful miracle we call Bella. Here is Bella’s story.
Bella was a tiny bear cub when, last year, she wondered onto a highway that carved its way through her home. Bang! She was struck by a vehicle and seriously injured.
The miracle started when the police officer called to the scene decided not to simply put the little creature out of her misery, even though she was unconscious, bleeding and had a broken femur and damaged skull. He called Mike.
Mike picked up the badly injured bear but realistically he thought she had no chance at survival. Her head was grotesquely swollen. She did not respond to stimuli. He set her up as best he could, and was surprised, in the morning, to see she was awake and upright. Phone calls were made, arrangements were made, and before long the badly battered bear cub was on her way for the three-hour drive to Toronto, where, at an emergency veterinarian clinic, she was anesthetised. For hour after hour, using all the skills of his profession, the veterinarian worked on the cub.
Bears, even baby bears, can be tough, and somehow this one survived. She was named Bella.
Fast forward to last week. When I met her Bella, now a year old and looking like any healthy yearling American black bear, was in a large enclosure she shared with three other yearling black bears, all orphaned. One of them, from the same area, was named Mechtka. “They are,” said Mike, as he man-handled huge armfuls of chokecherries just pruned from a bush near his house, “best friends, those two.” Mike put the branches into the enclosure — one last lesson in natural foraging — and very soon all four bears were busily chomping away at the fruity feast, huffing and snorting, and yet sharing. A fifth bear, another yearling, emerged from the nearby shrubbery, and began to pace the outside of the enclosure. He came within a few yards of us and Mike pointed out that his weight was less than that of the bears in the enclosure. They weighed somewhere in the 100- to 150-pound range.
That evening, Mike placed a cage within the enclosure, and by the time we arrived the next day, he had somehow managed to get both Mechtka and Bella into the cage, ready to be loaded onto the back of his 4-by-4 pickup. Using a backhoe, he did this, while Mechtka and Bella complained bitterly.
The truck was parked in the shade so the bears could cool off and calm down, and then we drove back roads until we were deep in a swampy forest. Mike had previously determined that while there are hunting camps in the general area, they weren’t active bear hunting camps. That’s a concern because bear hunting season begins in a couple of weeks, and already bear hunters have put out baits to attract the bears into range of their blinds. I can’t imagine why they want to do this, but they do.
Anyway, with cameras ready the tailgate of the truck was let down and the cage was opened. Out scooted two bears, one heading past where Mike had dumped some dog food, one last gift from Bear With Us, while the other went off to the side in a slightly different direction and scampered up a spruce. It was amazing how quickly they could vanish into the forest. Eventually the second bear descended, and the last we saw of them was the quivering of saplings they brushed against, and then they were gone, their adventures in the world of humans over, their place in nature restored.
I wish them well in a hostile world. Their world is now richer and more complex than anything captivity can provide, but the safety of the sanctuary is gone. Farewell, Bella. Goodbye, Mechtka. I hope your miracle continues for many seasons to come.