The grueling schedule of rehabilitating orphan bear cubs

This report was filed by Polina Shershneva, IFAW Russia Communications & Development Officer, after a visit to the Orphan Bears Rehabilitation Center. Read about how these bears were admitted to the center in WATCH: Three more bear cubs arrive for rehabilitation at Russia center and First two rescued bear cubs arrive at Russia center. --MD

Since the beginning of February, five bear cubs have arrived at the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Orphan Bears Rehabilitation Center. Right now, they are approximately 2.5 months old, and they are considered to be “babies.”

Bears are extremely difficult to rehabilitate, as the animal gets used to humans and their smell extremely fast. What’s more, one bear’s behavior may negatively influence the entire group of bear cubs, making the rehabilitation of the group much more difficult.

This year there is a veterinary student from Poland named Maria Magdalena volunteering with the Center. She first read about the bear cubs rehabilitation project on the International Fund for Animal Welfare website and reached out to offer her services.

When we met, she had already spent 1.5 months at the Center and was planning to stay helping until May, and then visit the Center again later to participate in the release. Right now, under Sergey Pazhetnov's supervision Maria selflessly takes care of the bear cubs. Every four hours she takes part in the feeding. Her only break for sleep is from 1 to 6 am. She prepares milk formula, feeds bear cubs from the bottle, helps with weighing them and maintains the development log for each bear cub, noting how they eat and react to the food.

During a specially appointed time, I was allowed to see the feeding. First, the special milk formula was put into feeding bottles. Everyone put on special sterile coats and slippers. Then we entered into a house with subdued lighting. The bear cubs were in a cot with plywood doors, which is called the “play room” by the staff (there is a structure made from sturdy tree branches inside). When the bear cubs heard humans approaching, they started scurrying around and making sounds similar to roaring or bleating. They were already hungry.

It is strictly prohibited to talk in this space. Sergey and Maria communicate through gestures and their work is meticulously coordinated: the bear cubs were taken from the cot and one by one were moved to individual plywood boxes. Then they were taken out one by one, and in seconds the bear cubs grabbed the bottle and stopped making sounds, while they continued to move their paws as if they were trying to climb. Very greedily, literally in two minutes, each bottle was emptied.

While Maria was feeding one bear cub, Sergey fed two. Once the food was eaten, the bear cub was promptly moved to their box which was covered by a plywood lid with small holes.

All of the conditions where the bear cubs are kept are as close as possible to the natural environment, even the light, it seems, is similar to the den. When the bear cubs calmed down after the feeding, they were moved to the play room, where at this age for most of the day they sleep.

After I left, they moved to the next stage of their rehabilitation.

They were transferred to the house-den started eating gruel independently from bowls. Gradually they will get comfortable in the forest enclosure, they will find and eat berries and other food, typical for the bears diet. They will learn to climb trees to be able to save themselves in case of danger.

The bear cubs will be able to bathe in a specially created pond. All of the time, their contact with humans is minimized.

I was lucky to see the bear cubs up close: they are cute babies, who in the few months of their life already lived through a huge stress. Looking into their tiny beady eyes I felt shame for my trip to the circus as a child, and also for a picture of a huge stuffed bear dressed as a clown, made during a trip to Suzdal. I felt shame for my previous indifference to the issue: Even if brown bears are not an endangered species, it does not mean that they can be treated with disdain as a hunting trophy.

IFAW’s Orphan Bears Rehabilitation Center is a unique project, which has been implemented for over 20 years in the village of Bubonitsy in the Tver Region. This scientific experiment was first started by an outstanding scientist –Valentin Sergeevich Pazhetnov, who was helped by his son Sergey, and then they were joined by his grandson Vasiliy, that is, three generations of the family that are engaged in the project.

When I travelled to the Center by car, I was faced with an unpleasant picture: multiple roadside tents selling items made of fur: hats with fox tails, wolf and bear hides. A terrible arrangement stood out: a stuffed female bear with two 7-8 months old cubs. As Sergey Pazhetnov explained to me later, such sales of stuffed animals and hides along the highway have increased in the recent years: the local mines closed down and miners who lost their jobs became hunters.

In 2011 IFAW was able to achieve implementation of a  winter den hunting ban. However, every year hundreds of animals are killed by poachers violating this law or loggers inadvertently scare mother bears away. Sometimes the cubs are taken for fun and kept as pets while they are small. There are hundreds of such animals destined for suffering all over the country. Every fifth letter sent to IFAW contains a request to save a bear kept in a tiny cage at a roadside restaurant or a private zoo.

Unfortunately, today, even if wild animals are removed from unconscientious owners, it is essentially impossible to ensure good conditions for their further life. So far, in Russia there are no sanctuaries for adult bears that have lived captive lives in circuses or zoos with questionable conditions.

On the basis of a unique methodology, the bear cubs who lost their mothers due to human interference are prepared for independent life in the wild. Sometimes 1 or 2 weeks old bear cubs arrive to the Center and even such small bears have a chance of survival and return to their natural habitat.

At the age of 8-9 months the bears are released in the forests, where they were found. Longstanding experience demonstrates that the animals adjust well to living in the wild. The best proof that the project is really effective is the 220 bears released back into the wild in the course of the Center's activities.

--PS

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