Tough go for orphaned bear cubs

When one lives in the woods, it's like the Bambi paradise of a Disney movie, right?

My wife and I enjoy the daily parade of turkeys, deer, the occasional cougar, and not infrequent appearances from the lumbering, black behemoths for which Bear Creek is named.

I'd prefer that the cougars refrain from their deer-dining on our back porch and in my tractor shed, both recent occurrences, although the memory makes taking the garbage out at night more interesting.

As for those black bears, I first saw the cubs as they ran across the drive at the edge of the woods. Spotting me, they shinnied up an oak tree. Cubs of the year, they couldn't have weighed more than 20 pounds, and their cute little faces and curious eyes peered down at me soulfully.

Since they seemed in no hurry to come down, I retreated to the house, gathered wife, Laurie, and her camera, and returned to the tree. The photo shoot was one for the books; both cubs posing and the smaller one, whom we assumed was sister, keeping a bit higher in the tree. Where's mama? Looking around, we cautiously left.

On her way to town a couple hours later, Laurie called to say the bears were up another tree. That was curious. They "should have cleared out by now," as we country folks say.

Not knowing either the location or temperament of mama bear, I approached carefully. This time the bears left their lofty perch and scampered farther into the woods. Still no sign of mother bear. In my best woodsman style, about as quiet as crunching newspaper, I tiptoed after the pair. It's easy to conjure up unpleasant scenarios in such circumstances; an angry, charging, slathering mother bear, protecting her cubs, for instance. But no, such was not to be.

The cubs were moving about, but near them a black mound lay in the leaves. There was no movement. After five minutes, still no movement. A cub tugged, but mama bear was dead.

"What are we going to do," Laurie asks?

"Nothing," I say hard-heartedly, "that's the way nature is."

"We've got to do something," Laurie insists.

"No one wants bears," I say, thinking of the many catastrophes we had before I built an electric fence around our garbage can, and the time we returned from a trip to find that our spa cover had been ripped to shreds and a bear had been sitting in our spa, partying for days.

Giving in an hour later, I called Oregon Fish & Wildlife.

"No," they say, "we won't do anything." Rehab facilities don't want bear cubs, and zoos are overflowing.

"That's what I thought," I say, trying to show my knowledge of such things.

The biologist tells me the cubs have been foraging for months and may survive on their own. May?

Several days passed before the cubs left the carcass of their mother. My inspection found no wounds. She had probably been hit by a car on the nearby county road.

Every day we would talk about the "twins," Laurie always asking, "Shouldn't we put some food out for them."

"A fed bear is a dead bear," I intone firmly.

"They're so cute," Laurie would say, "and what are they going to eat?" It was heart rending — Laurie's concern, not the bears' plight. They'll find something, I would assure her, but it did look pretty dry and barren out in the woods.

Days later as I watched through binoculars, the bears cannibalized their mother's body. Milk while alive, her protein when not, I rationalized to my wife. That's the way it is in nature. A week or so later, the cubs' image appeared on our trail camera as they drank from our birdbath pond by the back porch. They seemed larger.

"See," I told Laurie, "they're going to survive, but we can't encourage them to live around here."

The twins were seen at various times around the homes in our sparse neighborhood. The twins were foraging, but doing so in a territory already occupied by humans. Coming home after dark one night, two black streaks crossed through the headlights in our woods. The twins had grown. Would they instinctively hibernate when winter came? Would they den separately or together?

Our trail camera footage occasionally recorded the twins. While brother was well furred and continued to grow, sister's pelt was unkempt, and she lagged behind in growth. One day as I was exiting the door of my shop, both cubs were sitting on the stoop, a mere yard away. It was quite a start, I can tell you. The primal brain screams — "bear!" — way before the rational brain conveys they are just cubs. Another time the twins walked by within six feet of Laurie, where she stood, camera in hand, on our back porch. If only cubs didn't turn into grown bears.

Late fall and early winter brought out ripened madrone berries, and the woods were bountiful again. Loggers working on the mountain above us reported the twins climbing trees after the berries. The first snows highlighted animal tracks; deer, foxes, a coyote, raccoons, a skunk, snowshoe rabbits, but no bears. Same with the second snow. Just as I thought, the bears had hibernated.

Then a heavier snow, and on a walk wee saw bear tracks. Not the bigger-than-your-hand kind, but the smaller tracks of a cub. Just the right size for brother cub ... but they were alone. One can hope.

— Don Skillman lives near Talent.

Share This Story