Virginia’s human population is growing – and so is the number of black bears in the state. That sometimes means trouble, but the Wildlife Center of Virginia is working to ensure that things don’t end badly for either species.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia has long cared for injured birds, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and possums, but last year President Ed Clark decided to get into the bear business.
“The population of black bears in Virginia has been growing at about 9% per year, and that puts them in more frequent contact with humans. The problem that we had last year was that we had very few acorns in the woods, which meant that there were a lot of animals out there, they were very hungry, and they ended up coming into town. They cross interstate highways. The mothers are hit. The babies are hit. Some of them are attacked by dogs. Some of the mothers will go over the fence with the older cubs. The runt may not be able to make it across the fence. They get separated, and sometimes the mothers come back and sometimes they don’t.”
At least 25 bears were transported to Waynesboro – 18 of them cubs. Clark and a team of 20, including four veterinarians, anesthetized each bear to examine it for injuries or illness. Some of the babies could be placed with a mother bear raising young in captivity.
“She will be tranquilized. The babies will be put with her, and obviously the first reaction people have is, ‘Won’t she smell the difference?’ Well we get around that by rubbing Vick’s under her nose, and when she wakes up and inhales a snoot full of menthol and eucalyptus, all babies smell the same I’m sure.”
Others will be bottled fed or released into a woodland enclosure where the center has hidden hundreds of pounds of food.
“There may be a nugget of dog food there under the leaves. It may be a grape. It may be a piece of a carrot – whatever. It’s part of the training to teach these animals to forage. We don’t want them to think that food is going to be delivered in a bucket every day for the rest of their lives. They’re going to have to go look for it.”
Clark says contact with humans is minimal. In fact, to give bears a fighting chance in the wild, they must be trained to avoid people.
“We are doing things like squirting them with a squirt gun that’s filled with ammonia. Doesn’t damage or hurt them in any way. An animal that cannot be returned to the wild is in all probability destined for euthanasia, so a little discomfort here for a life in the wild is a small price to pay.”
The center keeps several high definition cameras trained on the bears so staffers and the public can keep an eye on them.
“The cubs will interact with each other a whole lot like children. Some will be introspective, and they want to go do their own thing and look at things, and then there are provocateurs that will wait until one of the other cubs looks away, then just come up and body slam them and then take off running. It’s just so funny. We use some of these little molded, plastic igloo-type dog houses to provide shelter for them. When we put them in there, it took them about a nanosecond to turn it upside down, causing the whole thing to rock back and forth, and then they would get inside and rock it back and forth as if it were some sort of a thrill ride.”
Clark invites the public to have a look on the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s website, and if people have oak trees that produce acorns or some other natural source of bear food, he invites a call.
“We actively solicit contributions of surplus vegetables from gardeners, fruit from orchardists. We did get a call one day from a baker y that offered us surplus donuts, and while that might be appropriate for the staff, Yogi Bear is not among our patients.”
And, he reminds people who see bears near their homes to avoid confrontation and not to panic:
“Bang on a kitchen pot. Holler at them. Blow a whistle. They’ll go away.”
In our next report, we’ll talk with Clark about some of the other animals that get care at the center – 3,000 of them last year alone.