Nursing Bears Back to the Wild

Sally Maughan is one of those people who won’t give up even if everybody else says she can’t succeed. As a result, there are at least 50 black bears roaming the wilds of Idaho today that wouldn’t have had a chance without her help.

Sally did something the experts said she couldn’t do. She became the “mother” to orphaned bears without making them so dependent and so fearless of humans that they would become nuisance bears and have to be killed.

“She’s had a great success rate,” says Susan Sherwin of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a grass-roots international organization that has begun underwriting some of the costs of maintaining Sally’s Idaho Black Bear Rehab Center on the outskirts of Boise.

Sally was already a veteran animal rehabilitator in 1989 when an official with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game asked her to see what she could do with an orphaned black bear. She had been rehabilitating animals for years, starting with a squirrel she found in her front yard after it had been hit by a car. She soon moved up to fox and coyotes and bobcats and even cougars, but the bear was something else.

A Pioneer in Her Field

“It just hooked me good and reeled me in,” she says. “It’s been nothing but bears since then.” In the beginning, she had no idea how to raise a bear without “imprinting,” or making the bear identify more with her than other bears. So she set out to learn about other programs.

“I couldn’t find any,” she says. “I went through a whole list of 1,500 animal rehabilitators and never found anyone who had worked with a bear.” There were bear trainers, and bear researchers, but no experts who raised bears with the sole intent of returning them to the wilds, she says.

It turns out that state agencies across the country refused to license rehabilitators to work with bears out of fear of producing a bunch of problem bears. Better to put the cubs in a zoo, or let them die, than add to a public safety problem that leads to the destruction of scores of bears each year that have lost their fear of humans.

Sally figured there had to be a better way, and with the help of John Beecham, a black bear expert with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who had enjoyed some success rehabilitating bears, she vowed to find it.

It took about five years, spending three or four hours a day with orphaned bears that kept turning up at her two-acre facility, to learn “what it’s like to be a bear cub,” she says.

And she learned something else. If these cubs were going to survive, she would have to become their “mother.”

Cubs: Hyper and Rough

During the few months the cubs are in her care, they “go through various stages of development, just like kids do,” she says. When they are very young, they are “wired and hyperactive,” slapping her around as she tries to feed them, just like they would their natural mother.

She’s the only one who feeds them, and “they bond with me and only me,” she says. And contrary to what had been thought, that bonding is ok.

Playtime can get a little rough when the cubs decide “let’s take mom down and chew on her for awhile,” she says, but she has never been hurt so much that she required medical attention.

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