About one-hundred fifth-graders turned out in Sitka recently to watch a trio of captive brown bears destroy a small tent that had been “baited” with fried chicken.
While the demonstration was a very graphic way to convey an important message about safety, it was also a step toward not doing this kind of project in the future. The directors of Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear hope to one day rehabilitate orphaned animals with as little human contact as possible, and then release them into the wild.
At the Fortress of the Bear with Sitka’s fifth grade.
It takes almost no time at all. There’s a red dome tent pitched next to a small stream running into a pond. The campers left a few scraps from a picnic on the ground outside the tent. But inside, it’s a brown bear jackpot.
I’m Claire Turner. I’m the bear manager at the facility. We baited the tent with fried chicken, peanut butter sandwiches, hot dogs, and some apples and oranges.
KCAW – A regular picnic.
Turner – A real picnic, yeah.
Three adult brown bear siblings Baloo, Lucky, and Toby, each weighing between 600 and 800 pounds are released into the habitat — a former concrete clarifier tank from Sitka’s pulp mill. The female, Toby, approaches the tent cautiously, browsing some of the fruit and other offerings on the ground nearby.
Then it’s all over. She’s on the tent, and her brothers join her.
Fabric ripping. The kids are very excited.
In literally seconds, the bears tear the tent to rags.
Tennie Bentz is an education specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. She does this messy camp exercise in schools in Juneau and Sitka — but in Sitka she gets to use real bears.
“In the past we set up a campsite behind Keet (Gooshi Heen Elementary School). We show the kids the tent. We make a messy campsite. We go back into the classroom and that’s it. And so this way we’re actually able to show what would happen if they left a messy campsite.”
And did the lesson hit home?
KCAW – What’s your name?
Student – Jayden Patrick Barker.
KCAW – What grade are you in?
Student – Fifth.
KCAW – Are you going to keep chicken in your tent after watching this?
Student – Not at all!
During the demonstration, other ADF&G staff have set up video cameras to capture the exercise. They’ll give the tape to Sitka High School students to prepare a bear safety TV commercial. After the fifth graders have piled back into buses and gone back to school, they set up another tent in a smaller area set aside for three black bear cubs, Smokey, Bandit, and Tuliaan, who were orphaned in Juneau and Seward in 2013. Then they sit back, and watch. This, too, will go in the video.
Score. Granola bar.
The black bears, which weigh from 150 to 250 pounds, take a little more time as they devour the dog kibble and grapes inside the tent. They’re playful: They pull apart the tent poles, and chew on the bungee cords. They wrestle a bit. But eventually the tent is shredded, and they stretch out among the ribbons like tired puppies.
“Les Kinnear. My title is executive director of the Fortress of the Bear. What that means exactly, I have no idea.”
Les Kinnear used to be a hunting guide. He hunted bears, among other things, in the Alaska Range, and says one of his fellow guides, especially, was notorious for leaving a messy camp.
“So it was kind of a toss-up, whether a bear had been there or not. The only way you could really tell was if the skillet was clean. You knew it was a bear.”
This kind of education outreach was in the plan when he and his wife Evy took on the project of converting former mill structures into a 60,000 square foot bear habitat eight years ago.
But there is still more to the plan.
“It’s all part of the ongoing process. We hope someday to expand and create an area where we can bring the next generation of orphan cubs to raise remotely, until they’re big enough, fast enough, strong enough, smart enough to take care of themselves. And start a pilot project here in Alaska putting them back in the wild where they belong.”
That won’t happen for these animals, unfortunately. The Fortress of the Bear sent triplet brown bear cubs to the Bronx Zoo in 2009, after their mother was accidently killed by police in Sitka. Another orphan black bear cub went to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas in 2010. But these bears will live out their lives here — maybe up to 30 years, according to state biologist Phil Mooney, who orchestrated today’s demonstration. He believes these bears remind us of our role in creating orphaned and captive bears.
“If they were really as violent as some people believe, we’d have a lot more people taking beds at the community hospital.”
In the meantime, the Fortress bears will do this job over and over again for students. And sooner or later, Mooney says, they’ll figure out that a tent just means fried chicken.
But that shouldn’t reduce the impact of this lesson in the least.
KCAW – How does this fit into the state budget?
Mooney – I got a real good deal on it when I was down in Boise, and I thought, I’m buying two tents!