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The cubs were captured in a so-called deadman trap at the Fortress of the Bear on August 19th.
Fortress personnel had set the trap – a gate that automatically closes behind the bears after they enter a vacant habitat – in the hope of giving state biologists the chance to radio-collar an unrelated sow that had been visiting Sitka.
When the cubs were trapped unaccompanied by the mother, biologists realized she was likely dead. They found the carcass by tracking the bear’s radio collar signal. Her cause of death has not been determined.
At the time, officials were optimistic that the cubs, who had been painted 12, 13, and 14 when their mother was collared, would be placed as a family in a zoo in the lower 48. ADF&G biologist Phil Mooney says – like adoptions anywhere – things have changed.
“As of yesterday the Louisville Zoo was looking to get three cubs, and they have picked those up from Montana, so they’re no longer in need. And the Tulsa Zoo was also looking for two-to-three cubs, but they’re looking more for cubs of the year.”
“Cubs of the year” refers to cubs born this spring. The three cubs successfully transferred to the Bronx Zoo last year from Sitka were cubs of the year. They were still under 100 pounds when they were shipped out last summer. 12, 13, and 14 already weigh about 150 pounds each. Mooney says it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to ship larger cubs.
“You can’t just stick those yearlings in a dog kennel and ship them down there, so it can be an issue. Even the Bronx Zoo sent in specially-designed cages – one for each of the cubs — and then there was a matter of time for Fortress of the Bear to crate-train the cubs so they felt comfortable for that long trip.”
Co-director Evy Kinnear says the Fortress, which currently holds a temporary permit for the cubs, will apply to house them long-term, though she doesn’t rule out the possibility of finding other homes.
Kinnear says the Fortress habitat can easily accommodate the cubs. However, the facility is going to have to move ahead with plans to expand its holding cages if it is to hold more rescued bears in the future.
Phil Mooney agrees. He says ADF&G always understood that at some point the Fortress would reach capacity, and the department would be left without a facility to place orphaned cubs.
Not that all cubs will get this chance, however. Mooney says two yearling brown bears orphaned in May in Sitka were beyond rescue. They had become exceptionally bold – and dangerous – and ADF&G was consulting with outside experts on the possibility of destroying the male cub, on the chance that the sow and female cub would return to a more natural behavior away from town.
When a resident shot the sow, Mooney says the dynamic shifted in favor of shooting the cubs also.
“The male cub was already on death row, if you want to put it that way. He had run out of chances. And so when they were both left like that, it wasn’t a good situation. We weren’t in a position to capture the cubs right away. The sow had been dead for twenty-four hours, and the cubs are not going to stick around very long. The female is going to follow the male and they’re going to end up on somebody’s porch, at night, and we’re going to go through a much worse situation of either trying to get them or put them down.”
Mooney says putting cubs down is the last thing he wants to do. At a meeting of department officials and the Fortress last week euthanizing the cubs was taken off the table. Mooney says the task now is working with the cubs to get them accustomed to people and the facility, which could become their permanent home.
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