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Sitka’s new bear cub settles in

Les Kinnear, who runs Fortress of the Bear, feeds the 9-month-old black bear cub by hand. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Les Kinnear, who runs Fortress of the Bear, feeds the 9-month-old black bear cub by hand. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

The orphaned black bear cub who recently became famous in the virtual world is settling into her new home in the real world. Over 300,000 people viewed Smokey’s story on Facebook when she was captured two weeks ago in Seward. Now,  Sitka’s bear habitat, the Fortress of the Bear, is writing her next chapter.

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At the Fortress of the Bear,  Les Kinnear leads the way into a dark shipping container. Inside, light shines in through just a few holes. At the back is a metal mesh fence.

Behind that fence is another wire enclosure, with a thick bed of straw and a dog crate in the corner. And poking her head out of the crate is Smokey the bear, the 9-month old bear cub who is the Fortress’s newest, and youngest resident.

Smokey is the Fortress's newest and youngest resident, and currently the habitat's only black bear. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Smokey is currently the habitat’s only black bear. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

Kinnear runs the Fortress of the Bear with his wife, Evy. He settles down in the straw with a bucket of apple bits and dog kibble, and begins feeding the bear cub by hand.

“The fun part is teaching her that there’s enough food for her now, that she does not have to panic and eat everything at once,” Kinnear says. “So we come in here a couple times a day, and sit in here, and work with her.”

Little Smokey takes every bite as fast as he will hand it to her. She’s the size of a spaniel, with a thick coat that makes her look much bigger than her 25 lbs. Her face is all snout. If you shaved her, Kinnear says, she’d look like a chihuahua.

The bear cub arrived at the Fortress of the Bear last Friday. She was captured two weeks ago in Seward, where staff at the Spring Creek Correctional Center found her in the space used for smoking breaks – hence her name, which Kinnear says she’ll be keeping.

“They said she was eating cigarette butts and candy wrappers off the floor, when she was captured,” Kinnear says. “Her mother had been dead several days. And they had scheduled to kill her.”

The cub was a minor internet sensation after an organization called Angels for Animals posted a photo of her on their Facebook page, along with contact information for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Angels for Animals says the post reached 300,000 people, and the Department of Fish and Game was inundated with messages begging them not to euthanize the cub.

The Kinnears volunteered to take Smokey – and it’s a big undertaking. Now that she’s here, she’s here for life – she can’t be released back into the wild, and black bears can live up to 20 years in captivity, Kinnear says. This winter, the Fortress will have to build a new, separate enclosure to house her – the habitat’s existing two structures house five brown bears, and wouldn’t be safe or big enough. Kinnear expects to get a second black bear cub from Fish and Game soon, to keep her company.

For now, the cub seems content in her temporary digs: she has her head entirely inside the bucket, finishing off the apple and kibble.

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