Tag Archives: Black bears in Pennsylvania

Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs by Tony Ross

A year ago, I posted about my friend, Tony Ross, who is the Northcentral Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Tony and his colleagues had rescued an orphaned black bear cub, and he and his wife, Karin cared, for the cub until Tony could reintroduce the cub into the wild under the care of a foster mother. I loved that story and thought it was amazing, but this year, Tony and other Game Commission biologists did something even more incredible; they rescued four orphaned cubs. I will let Tony tell the story in his own words, and I hope if any of my readers have friends or relatives in Pennsylvania, you will encourage them to read Tony’s story.


Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs


Tony Ross

(all photos by Tony Ross)

It’s that time of year again. Young animals are beginning to show up all over the place and sooner or later, something will happen to the mother and the chase begins. And as I’m writing this, two baby squirrels are sitting in a pen in our kitchen. On April 12, our office (Pennsylvania Game Commission) received a call about four black bear cubs on the loose. The mother got hit by a vehicle and was found dead in a stream. Often, the cubs will be hanging on or around mom but the stream was much deeper and faster than normal so that didn’t happen.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Steve Brussese and I arrived on scene at the same moment. The caller pointed out the dead sow in the creek and mentioned he saw four small cubs on the other side of the creek going upstream. Steve and I split up as I walked up stream and he drove along the road and checked for any access to the other side of the stream. Neither of us saw anything. As I made it back to the scene, Steve had the sow out of the stream and loaded on his vehicle. We talked with the caller and asked him to call our office if he observes the cubs again.

Steve and I drove downstream to find an area to cross the fast-flowing creek. We found an area about 1/2 mile downstream. However, before we got together to start the trek, the office called us on the radio telling us the caller just observed the cubs going up a tree. We quickly got back in our vehicles and rushed back to the same spot. This time we saw three cubs up a tree on the other side of the creek. The caller was over there also. We had no choice but to wade across the creek.

Once we made it across the slippery rocks, the caller informed us the four cubs must have been hiding in a crawl space under the overhanging stream bank. We asked about the fourth cub and he stated it was still in that crawl space. As we all looked in the dark area, I noticed hair and immediately reached in and grabbed the cub with my gloved right hand. The cub was too large to fit through any openings in front of me so Steve came over and pulled out a rock that made the opening large enough to pull it through. I didn’t want the cub to pull away so I used my ungloved left hand. Small black bear cubs often are very naïve and don’t show any aggression towards humans until they reach about 10 lbs. Then, look out! This cub was about 8-10 lbs and was aggressive enough that he bit my hand. It didn’t break the skin but it sure produced a nice blood blister.

One down, three to go. We tried several things to get the three cubs down out of the tree but the cubs didn’t move on their own. Our attempts to get them down actually made them go up as high as they could. Our last option was to cut the tree. It worked but Steve and I and the three cubs got very wet in the process.

When we rescue orphaned cubs, we often have to keep them overnight at our homes before releasing them to one of our radio collared sows that are known to have cubs of their own. They become foster mothers. Fortunately, my wife is also an animal enthusiast so bringing home four black bear cubs was a delight for her. We kept each cub in its own pet carrier to make feeding easier. Together, we had to care for those cubs for 1 day and 2 nights. Feeding was a treat. Each bear had its own personality. From very naïve to very aggressive. The naïve one was the smallest of the group so it may have had to submit to its siblings causing it to be very submissive. The aggressive one was the one I pulled from out under the bank. He would bite, scratch and woof at you if you got near to him but once he tasted food, he calmed down for a short time. We finally just put his food in a container in his carrier and he lapped it up. Easier for him and both of us.

On Friday, I met Wildlife Conservation Officers Jason Wagner and Wayne Hunt who had collared sows in their districts, Wildlife Conservation Deputy Steve, and Information and Education Supervisor Doty McDowell. It was our intent to give two cubs to each of those collared sows. I split the four into two groups. The firs consisted of the two most timid cubs and the other were the two most aggressive.

The first group were let go with a sow that was still using her den as a retreat. Jason carried the two cubs in a backpack and dumped them at the opening of the den and both ran inside. Trail camera photos indicated she, her natural cubs and her foster cubs left the den area the next day.

The second group’s introduction was a bit different. This radio collared sow was on the move with her cubs so we had to get close enough to her to get her to put her cubs up a tree. Once Wayne located the sow in his district, it was time for all of us to get moving. It was only a couple hundred yards before we got close enough to get her to tree her cubs. Next step was to release the two more aggressive cubs up the same tree. As I held the bag open, Jason pulled out the most aggressive cub (I gave him my gloves before he put his hand in the backpack) and put him on the tree and he started to go up. We watched as he began to climb up but at about 10 feet he lost grip and fell back to the ground at my feet. I immediately grabbed him and as I was putting him on the tree he looked at me and in his usual attitude started woofing at me. In the meantime, Jason had gotten the other cub out of the bag and we left both of them go at the same time and up the tree they went. We got our stuff together quickly as their mother was watching us from not too far away and we wanted to get out of there quickly so she could be reunited with “all” of her cubs.

Black Bear Cub

Black Bear Cub

This week I’m hopping across the country to post about a rescued black bear cub in Pennsylvania. One of the many perks of owning a lodge is that I have the opportunity to meet interesting people from around the world, and many of our guests become our friends. A few years ago, Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania joined us for a summer trip, and they have returned to our lodge every year since then. We’ve gotten to know the Rosses well, and we stay in touch throughout the year. Both Tony and Karin work with animals, and Tony is the Northcentral Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Luckily for all of us, one of Tony’s hobbies is wildlife photography, and as you can see from the photos in this post, he is very good at it.

This spring, Karin e-mailed and said, “Nothing beats your husband bringing home a bear ub!” She went on to tell me that the Pennsylvania Regional Game Commission office received a phone call from a man who said a small cub was sitting at the bottom of a steep rock outcrop next to a stream near his cabin. The cub appeared to be alone, either separated or abandoned by his mother, and the little guy was crying. Tony and his crew drove out to the area where the man had seen the cub, and the man told them that the cub recently had crossed the fast-flowing creek and ran into the forest. A few moments later, one of Tony’s associates noticed something moving in the woods, and when Tony walked into the forest, the cub ran towards him. The cub stopped six-feet from Tony, sat on a log, and looked up at him. Tony tried to kneel down beside the cub to catch it, but the cub warily moved under some bushes.

Since Tony had three people with him, they slowly circled the cub and caught him with a net. They then took the cub back to their office, dried him off, and put him in a pet carrier with a warm blanket. That night, Tony took the 7-lb. cub home, and he and Karin fed him with a syringe filled with sweetened condensed milk mixed with water. The cub consumed four 12-cc syringes over the next 12 hours.

After catching the cub, Tony and his crew set a trap to try to catch the cub’s mother, but they were unsuccessful, so Tony did the next best thing. He released the cub to a black bear sow who had three cubs of her own. I was fascinated that a black bear sow with three cubs would adopt another cub, and how did the biologists introduce the cub to its new family? I’m used to brown bears, and a brown bear mother with three cubs has her paws full. That’s a large family for a brown bear, and it is unlikely she would willingly feed a fourth cub that wasn’t her own. Tony told me that it is fairly common for a black bear mother to have four cubs; some black bear sows have six cubs. He said they have a list of potential foster mothers for these types of situations. The foster mothers are radio-collared females that already have cubs of their own. When biologists need to place a cub, they locate one of their radio-collared sows, and if they feel she can handle another cub, they follow her until she trees her cubs. They then run to the tree, roll the foster cub in the dirt, and send it up the same tree where its foster siblings are. All the while they are doing this, they have to keep track of the mother to make sure she keeps her distance. Once the foster cub is up the tree, the biologists quickly leave the area and hope for the best.Little Tony with ear tags with new sibling no ear tags

Before a foster cub is released, he is ear tagged, and you can see the ear tag on the foster cub in the photo. Tony said the release of this cub went according to plan, and he said he and his colleagues were happy to see the foster cub climb on and over his new siblings, picking up their odor and making it more likely his new mother would accept him.

Tony told me that each year the Pennsylvania Game Commission places orphaned cubs with foster moms. Sometimes a cub’s mother is hit and killed by a vehicle, and sometimes, cubs are just abandoned by their mothers for some reason. Worst of all, people occasionally take cute little cubs from the field and try to keep them, but when they become a handful (and that doesn’t take long), people contact the game commission for help. Tony and his colleagues do their best to place each orphaned cub with a foster mother, and while they don’t have the resources to follow each cub, they know that many of these tagged cubs have grown into adults, so the placements were obviously successful.

I was fascinated by Tony and Karin’s encounter with the black bear cub, and I was reminded how much black bears differ from brown bears. Tony and his fellow biologists with the Pennsylvania Game Commission work hard to ensure every orphaned cub is placed with a new mother and has a chance to survive until adulthood. Brown bear sows sometimes adopt cubs, but I believe it is a rare occurrence.

I find it interesting that any wild animal would adopt a baby that isn’t its own. Please leave a comment if you have information or stories about wild animals adopting “foster children.” Also, don’t hesitate to ask Tony a question; I’ll be sure he gets it.


For more information on the Pennsylvania Game Commission, their biologists, and their research projects, go to www.pgc.pa.gov. I checked out this website, and it is full of information. Spend some time reading about the ongoing research projects of the game commission; I found it extremely interesting.