Nursing Bears Back to the Wild

Within a few months the bears begin to change and “mellow out,” she says. And like a lot of teenagers, they grow a little less fond of parental attention. They can get downright nasty if “mom” tries to make them do something they don’t want to do, and she occasionally has to take steps to avoid bears that seem particularly agitated.

But around October, something quite amazing starts to happen.

“Their wild instinct seems to mature and start kicking in,” she says.

They seem to know that even if Sally fed them, she isn’t one of them.

Breaking the Bond

By December the bears are ready to hibernate, and they no longer want anything to do with mom. So officials with the state Department of Fish and Game take them out to the wilds and put them in existing bear dens. At that stage the bears are afraid of just about everything, because they really don’t understand what’s dangerous and what’s helpful, so they become very wary of humans.

By the time Spring rolls around, the bears emerge as wild as their cousins who had a more traditional upbringing.

Of the bears that passed through Sally’s center, five died from disease or injuries, but 50 made it to maturity. Only one became a nuisance bear, and that was because some well-meaning but ignorant folk left food out for it. That bear was captured and ended up in an animal park, something Sally says she would never allow to happen again. She would rather see the bear destroyed than captured, because she no longer has any control over it and can’t guarantee that it is being treated well.

By now, you might think Sally wouldn’t care all that much about each bear. After all, if you’ve seen one bear, you’ve seen them all, right?

No way.

“Each bear has its own personality,” she says. “They are all unique.

“We had one bear named Griz [because it looked like a grizzly even though it was a black bear] who was just a real handful, a very powerful, determined bear. He just ran you through the gamut of emotions. He would make you mad, then he would frustrate you, then he would make you laugh until you were crying. He could just reach out and touch you and you would be in awe of the empathy this bear could express.

“It’s probably an insult to the bears to say this, but at times I’ve seen more humaneness from bears than I’ve seen from humans.”

Catching On

Her program has spread in recent years to other states, and now there are nearly a dozen bear rehabilitation programs patterned after hers.

Today, Sally’s haven for bears is surrounded by residential subdivisions, and she has to work to keep her bears isolated from interested neighbors. Only one neighbor is allowed in the enclosure to help her with the bears, and he remains distant enough so that the bears don’t bond with him. They only do that with one person. Mom, after all, really does know best.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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