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Viral bear cub headed to Fortress of the Bear

Sitka’s “cuteness” factor is about to rise. An orphaned bear cub that’s become an Internet sensation is headed to the coastal Southeast community.

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Last week, the small black bear cub wandered into Seward’s Spring Creek Correctional Center’s smoke shack.

It was named Smokey.

Smokey, an orphaned  black bear cub, has gone viral on Facebook. Sitka's Fortress of the Bear has offered to house the animal.

Smokey, an orphaned black bear cub, has gone viral on Facebook. Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear will house the animal.

But the animal’s future didn’t look good. Orphaned when its mother was shot and separated from its siblings, the likely outcome was euthanization.

But the Sitka nonprofit operation Fortress of the Bear got involved. And that is where Smokey is headed.

State Fish and Game Department spokesman Ken Marsh explains.

“We have a tentative agreement with Fortress of the Bear to take the bear. We have a few contingencies they’re working on right now to make sure the bear can be safely transported from Seward. … So once we get all those ducks in a row and things seem to be falling into place, we should be good to go,” Marsh says.

Smokey’s cause was picked up by the nationwide animal-rescue organization Angels for Animals Network. It used its Facebook page to try to save the cub. The plea, illustrated by a photo of the curious creature, went viral.

More than 100,000 people saw the post, and some called or emailed officials.

Now, with state support, Fortress of the Bear’s Les Kinnear says the facility is getting ready for the new arrival.

“We’re lining up housing for him and getting everything situated on this end, with the long-term prospect of building an additional space either in one of our habitats or separately, depending on how much interest and revenue we can generate. It depends on what type of facility we go ahead and build over the winter for these new cubs in the spring,” Kinnear says.

The Fortress has two enclosures containing five large brown bears. Kinnear says it would not be safe to add a small black bear into the mix.

But Smokey may still have company. Fish and Game’s Marsh says the state is looking for a second cub to send to Sitka.

“That is a possibility. It’s something that we’re actively looking into right now. In fact, we may even a potential candidate. I won’t jinx it by saying any more. We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Marsh says.

Once the cub – or cubs – settle in, they’ll spend time on display.

Kinnear says that will help them become successful residents at the sanctuary and tourist attraction.

“Certainly, it’s a good thing if bear cubs are going to be in captivity that they are familiar with people and behave normally around them. So certainly introducing them to a number of people is something we hope to be able to do,” Kinnear says.

The cuteness factor will have lessened by the time cruise-ship tourists visit next spring. By then, the cubs will be about 100 pounds each and no longer resemble long-clawed puppies.

Marsh says bear cub deaths are not uncommon in Alaska. Many don’t make it because of attacks from other bears, starvation or separation from their mothers.

“It’s just something that happens in nature to some degree. And in this case it was human interaction that caused the cub to be orphaned,” he says. “It’s nice that in this situation we were able to find a compromise.”

State and Fortress officials say they expect the cub – or cubs – to head to Sitka soon.

They have to arrange safe travel, adequate shelter, a public-education plan and a few other details. We’ll keep you posted on their progress.

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