Three orphaned cubs unexpectedly entered our lives two weeks ago. You may remember in my post on Kodiak bears emerging from their dens in the spring, I mentioned that sows with newborn cubs are the last to emerge, and often the sow will leave and return to the den many times before she introduces her babies to the world. Unfortunately, this behavior was fatal for one sow this spring.
Let me make it clear that bear hunting on Kodiak is very tightly regulated by a limited-permit system. It is illegal to shoot a sow with cubs, but when hunters saw this sow alone outside her den they shot her, perhaps never realizing she had cubs in the den. The incident is being investigated by the Alaska State Troopers, and I won’t speculate on what may or may not have happened. That part of the story is out of our hands.
Our guides already suspected this bear was a sow with young cubs in the den, and after she was shot, they kept a close eye on the den. A few days later, Tim, one of our guides, saw tiny, furry heads peering out of the den. My husband, Mike, called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, and they gave us permission to rescue the cubs from the den. At that point, it had been five days since their mother died, and the biologists did not believe the cubs would survive.
Two of our guides climbed up to the den, caught the cubs, and carried them down the mountain in backpacks. They then transported the cubs back to our lodge for the night. The three brothers were dirty, terrified, and stressed, and they huddled under the bunk beds in our guides’ cabin. They drank some water, but I knew we were not getting enough nutrients into their little bodies. We later learned that the cubs each weighed about 12 pounds (5.5 kg), and they were dehydrated and malnourished.
The next morning, I stayed alone with the cubs, waiting nervously for Fish and Game to arrive to take them to Kodiak. I soon learned, though, that it was foggy in Kodiak, and all planes were grounded until the fog lifted. Every hour, I crept into the cabin and peered under the bed, making sure they were still moving and alert. They drank some water, but I finally decided that my attempts to feed them were causing them too much stress, and since the airplane ride undoubtedly would terrify them, I wanted them as calm as possible before they began the next leg of their ordeal.
At 3:00 in the afternoon, the floatplane touched down and glided to our dock. I raced to meet Fish and Game biologist Nate Svoboda and eagerly showed him where the bears were hiding. Nate was impressed the bears looked as good as they did, and he carefully placed them in a large kennel for the trip to Kodiak.
Once in Kodiak, the cubs spent the night at Fish and Game and then took another plane ride to Anchorage, where the vets at the Alaska Zoo are now caring for them. A video recently released by the zoo shows the three brothers playing and cuddling. They are now clean and fluffy and appear to be very healthy. After spending several months in Anchorage, the cubs will board yet another plane. Two will go to a zoo in Wisconsin, and the third to another zoo.
I experienced a roller coaster of emotions during this drama: Anger, depression, excitement, worry, and fear among others, but as I watched the video from the Alaska Zoo and saw three, healthy, playful cubs, I finally allowed myself to smile and breathe a sigh of relief. The three bears will never know a life in the Kodiak wilderness, but they are alive, and their jobs now are to teach others about Kodiak bears. Maybe someday I will be able to visit them at their new homes.
View the video of the cubs.