It’s spring, and that means business for the Wildlife Center of Virginia, where hundreds of animals – many of them babies -- are brought for treatment of injuries or illness. This year veterinarians are caring for a record number of bear cubs, the public is invited to watch.
On a sunny afternoon in May, a small, light brown bear climbs around her cage – trying to find a way out. She was confiscated from someone who tried to keep her as a pet, and Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach for the center, says this baby is not native to these parts.
“On one hand we have this Syrian brown bear that will go on to an educational facility, and so we can interact with her, because she’s not being released back to the wild, and then next door we have eight black bear cubs. The rehabbers and their students don’t talk to those bears, and they don’t cuddle them, because we want them to grow up and be afraid of humans, and we don’t want to give them too much of that human contact," said Nicholson.
The number of black bears in Virginia has been growing, steadily. They’ve been spotted in almost every county, and as habitat is lost to new development, they’re increasingly at risk.
“The mothers are killed by cars, sometimes they’re chased by dogs, sometimes it’s just one of those accidental things where a baby falls in a hole, and the mother moves off with her other cubs, leaving the baby. I mean there are lots and lots of reasons, but as the population grows, the incidence also grows of accidental separation of the cubs," said Wildlife Center President Ed Clark.
From a population standpoint, he says, we could just leave those babies to die. “One bear, one way or the other, truly is not going to matter for Virginia’s population. They’re not an endangered species, but the public cares a great deal about these animals, and in order to engage the public with conservation of the less lovable animals, we can’t ignore their feelings about the more charismatic animals.”
Which is why the Virginia Department of Wildlife and Inland Fisheries is chipping in half of the cost of a $400,000 bear care center that Clark hopes to build.
“The wildlife center has been in the bear business for decades, but we are moving into it in a very large way, by creating what will be one of the most advanced facilities for rearing orphaned black bear cubs.”
Clark hopes the cubs will help him raise the other $200,000. There’s a camera in their den, and from the center’s website, anyone can watch the four-legged furballs in action.
“They have very strong personalities. Some of them are timid and want to be left alone, others are bossy and want to run the show. We see them wrestling together. They just received a little water bowl earlier this week, and their favorite things seems to be dumping it and then sitting in the bowl.”
Nicholson says the baby bears, which weigh under 12 pounds, were at first bottle fed but are now lapping formula from a dish. Life would be different in the wild, but they will survive on their own.
“The cubs are very social with their mother, and if Mom has a couple of cubs, they’re definitely a solid family unit, and they live together for a good year, year and a half until Mom is ready to mate again. In this situation, unfortunately, something happened where they can’t be with Mom anymore, so our next best solution is to raise them together, and as long as they have each other for that comfort and interaction, they’ll still retain a lot of that bear nature.”
In addition to bear cubs, the center is caring for opossums, squirrels, rabbits and baby birds. Two young owls are in residence, and they too can viewed on the Wildlife Center’s crittercam.