Wildlife Center of Virginia Using Yearling Bears As Surrogate Mothers for Cubs

By: WHSV Newsroom
By: WHSV Newsroom

WAYNESBORO, Va. (WHSV) -- Thus far in 2014, the Wildlife Center of Virginia has admitted five Black Bear cubs, cubs born in January to February of this year, that have been orphaned or separated from their mothers.

The Center is now using two yearling female bears, also admitted to the Wildlife Center as patients, as surrogate mothers/sister bears for these cubs.

One “family” of bears is now on Critter Cam 1, the Center’s live web-based camera feed. Cam viewers may watch the three cubs and the slightly larger yearling female (with a green tag in each ear) wrestling, playing, eating, and sleeping.

This surrogate technique was first used at the Wildlife Center in 2012 and has been used by other bear rehabilitation facilities across the nation. According to Jaime Sajecki, Black Bear Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries [VDGIF], after a period of introduction some female yearlings will readily accept young cubs. Although they are not yet of breeding age, the maternal instincts of these female yearlings kick in after they are introduced to their young charges. The surrogates/role models, who have spent a year in the wild, help teach the cubs how to be bears and help reinforce a wariness of humans.

The Center has established two “families” of bears. The first—Family Group #1 – includes:

* Female Yearling #14-0126. The bear was admitted from Madison County on March 1; she was thin and dehydrated with muscle atrophy. Largely due to a weak mast [nut] crop last fall, the Center has admitted eight underweight yearling bears in 2014. [At the Center, animals admitted receive sequential patient numbers; Bear #14-0126 was the 126th patient admitted during 2014. To date, the Center has admitted more than 500 patients.]

* Cubs #14-0252 [female] and #0253 [male], admitted on April 7 from Alleghany County after their mother was killed by a car. These cubs were confiscated by VDGIF after they were illegally kept by private citizens.

* Cub #14-0350, a male, was found, alone and surrounded by dogs, in a yard in Botetourt County. The cub was admitted to the Center on April 18.

The yearling and the Alleghany County cubs were placed together in one of the Center’s three bear pens on April 18. Each pen includes a large chamber that is 12 feet long by 8 feet wide by 10 feet high, as well as an adjoining den [4 feet by 8 feet by 3.5 feet]. After a few days of indifference, which seems to be the regular pattern, the yearling and the two cubs began interacting. The Botetourt County cub joined the other bears on April 22.

The cubs have bonded to the surrogate yearling; they are frequently seen together on Critter Cam. When the cubs hear humans approaching the bear pen, usually at feeding times, they typically run and hide with the yearling in the den.

The cubs are currently being fed formula bowls, bear formula mixed in with soft fruits and moistened dog food. Once the cubs have been weaned onto more solid food, the entire bear “family” will be moved into the Center’s Black Bear Complex. Completed in early January 2014, this complex includes three large “yards” of about one-half acre each, all inside secure fencing. Each yard is an area of natural forest habitat, with trees, stumps, bushes, brush, and other native plants. These are the “classrooms” in which the cubs can practice the skills they will need in the wild.

At this point, the Center expects that the yearling and “her” three cubs will be released by VDGIF later this year.

Family Group #2 is just being formed, including:

* Yearling #14-0184, another underweight yearling admitted from Botetourt County on March 28.

* Cub #14-0224. This cub – a female – was found in the middle of a gravel road in Giles County; no den or sow could be located. The cub was admitted to the Center on April 4.

* Cub 14-0394. This male was confiscated by VDGIF; the cub had been kept illegally by private citizens for some time in Wise County. The cub was admitted to the Center on April 25.

The cubs were placed in one of the Center’s three bear pens on May 2; the yearling surrogate joined them on May 5. Within a few days, the Center expects the yearling and the cubs to be interacting. The Center hopes to move the three bears of Family Unit #2 into one of the yards in the Center’s Bear Complex within the next month, in anticipation of release later this year.

During 2013, the Center admitted 25 Black Bears – an all-time record in the Center’s 31-year history. Thus far in 2014, the Center has admitted

13 bears – eight yearlings and five cubs.

Every year, about 2,600 animals – Black Bears, Bald Eagles, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, turtles – are brought to the Wildlife Center for care. Since its founding in 1982, the nonprofit Center has cared for more than 65,000 wild animals, representing 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The Center’s public education programs share insights gained through the care of injured and orphaned wild animals, in hopes of reducing human damage to wildlife. The Center trains veterinary and conservation professionals from all over the world and is actively involved in comprehensive wildlife health studies and the surveillance of emerging diseases.

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