Field essay: Spring has sprung for three Russian bear cubs

Three yearling brown bears were satellite collared for post-release monitoring in Bubonisty, Russia. The International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) Orphan Bear Rescue Center in Russia hand-raises orphaned bears through their dependent stages and then releases them for a life in the wild.A roar rose from under the small log house. We froze, and our hearts quickened. The dazzle of sunlight on snow made the forest shadows dark: a chiaroscuro of survival in a remote Russian forest. The roar told us that the dart had found its target, and a bear had woken in the early Tver spring.

Sergey Pazhetnov’s legs wriggled backwards from beneath the little house, and his torso emerged with the blow pipe in tow. He and his son, Vasily, moved swiftly and silently to load another dart, communicating with hand signals.

There were three yearling cubs under the hut, asleep since last November. They had to be briefly anaesthetized to be fitted with satellite collars before the spring drew them into the forest for a proper bear life, and forever away from the International Fund for Animal Welfare Bear Rescue Center. Here they spent their first year, raised from a baby bottle and with as much love and care as humans can offer an orphaned cub that is meant to grow into a life in the wild.

My senses strained toward the animals under the hut. The cubs’ apprehension was palpable, though we couldn’t see them. No matter how silently we tried to move, we knew that they heard every rustle of clothes and every footstep in the snow. They felt the awareness of other living things breathing nearby. And the smells! Bears discern odors like an owl’s eye can the movement of a mouse below the snow 100 metres from the sky, and here were ten humans pressing so close, and their smells like roars in the heads of these bears. 

The cubs were raised to avoid people, to regard humans as creatures from which it is best to keep away. That is the crucial element of the Pazhetnovs’ bear rehabilitation skill at the center. The unique intelligence of bears, combined with their phenomenal exploratory skills and a tremendous capacity to learn make it very challenging to raise orphaned bear cubs without the bears becoming habituated to humans. Human habituation is a bullet in a bear’s brain. Bears that don’t fear people visit farms and human settlements to seek food, and that is invariably the end of the bear.  

Bears are the most altricial mammal, with the exception of marsupials, which means that their newborns are the tiniest in relation to adult size and are the most physically immature. Their young are tiny fetuses when they are born, and are dependent for a long time on their mothers for nutrition, immunity against disease, social development, physical development and protection from predators. 

Raising orphaned bear cubs from as young as a few days old into strong yearling bears that are both behaviorally and physically fit for survival in the wild is an achievement little short of miraculous. The development of the necessary methods defines one of the remarkable accomplishments in the life of Professor Valentin Pazhetnov, who founded the the Center some 25 years and nearly 200 bear cubs ago.

The winter den hunt has supplied the Pazhetnovs with as many orphaned cubs each year as they could raise. For each cub that was saved, hundreds probably starved and froze to death each winter, with their mothers murdered just outside the den.

An even worse fate awaited those cubs pulled from the dens and sold to zoos and circuses. The tenacious efforts of the Pazhetnovs, IFAW and other conservationists in Russia, brought about the official end to the barbaric winter bear hunt.

The illegal wildlife trade that feeds the soaring demands of Asia for bear parts and other wildlife products fuels poaching, however, and there is no danger that the Pazhetnovs, now it their third generation of bear rescue, will sleep through the long Russian winters.

The tiny cubs arrive at the Center helpless, weak, and needing 24-hour care that their mothers would otherwise provide. Every two or three hours, all through the short days and long, very cold nights, the beam of a flashlight bobs across the snow to the cub den house.

Inside, it is warm and dark, and smells of baby bears and warm milk. The bear nurses wear clothes and gloves that smell of bear, hoods over their heads, and never speak a single human word in the presence of the bears. The cubs must never learn that food comes from something that sounds like, smells like, or looks like, a human.

Through the years, Professor Pazhetnov has formulated a diet for the different stages of growth of a cub – from baby bottle to fattening up before autumn. The light in the bear kitchen glows at 5:00 in the deep-frozen mornings where Professor Pazhetnov or his wife, Svetlana, cook baby bear porridge with fresh milk still warm from the neighbor’s cow.

In the cub house, the cubs squeal with anticipation of food and tumble over each other. Now in early April they are sturdy and very strong, and are already very agile climbers. It’s nearly impossible to keep any order among all the urgent noses, limbs and ears. All but two of the cubs have by now learned to drink from a bowl, which is a very messy affair. It’s all that one can do to keep from laughing out loud as little round bear faces raise muzzles dripping with milk and cereal.

Some cubs concentrate on their own bowls; others charge from bowl to bowl, plowing through legs and careening into bear bodies, wearing more porridge than they take in. It takes three people to keep them all sorted and to make sure that everyone gets their share. Once every tummy is big and round, the cubs are wiped down with clean cotton towels (washed without detergent) and placed two by two into boxes to quiet down, or into a play pen in which they can cavort on a log jungle gym.

Their human nurses can provide food, warmth, shelter, other cubs for companionship--nearly everything that a cub needs. But only nearly: nothing can replace Mama. Suckling is a hard-wired need in baby mammals, and no baby bottle can replace the need to satisfy that.

Like most orphaned mammals, these bear cubs suckle on one another’s ears and fur to satisfy that need. While suckling, they emit a deep, reverberating hum that one can feel almost viscerally before one hears it. Hand-raised bears suckle on one another or on their own paws and hum long into adulthood. It is one way to recognize immediately a bear that grew up without its mother. After each feeding, the nurses tiptoe from the cub den and dim the light onto the deep hum of bear cubs needing their mother.

In spring, the cubs are let out of the den house, and into a large wooded enclosure where they explore, climb, forage, swim and play like normal cubs do. They grow quickly and by autumn are roly-poly and ready for their first winter. Most of the center’s cubs are released into the forest in the autumn to make their own dens. Two or three overwinter under the den house to be collared before they make their way into the forest in spring. Satellite tracking collars allow staff to track the cubs so that we can learn how they fare, where they go, if they stay away from human settlements, and, ultimately, if the females succeed in raising their own families. Through this, we gain much-needed information about brown bear ecology in the Russian wilderness. Very importantly, we also learn how effective the center’s rehabilitation methods are for orphaned cubs. 

The video news story about the IFAW Bear Rehab Center.

Sergey’s second dart finds its target and a second, then a third, roar goes up. We hold our breaths for eight eternal minutes.  Dr. Ian Robinson, Director of IFAW’s Animal Rescue Program, which has funded the center for 15 years, notes the times and doses of the anesthetic darts in his notebook.

I touch the stethoscope around my neck like a talisman. I have anaesthetized hundreds of bears, but each time is almost like the first: a different bear, another risk, so many things that could go wrong, a single precious, precious life. And we’re not in a hospital with all the machines and drugs one might need: we’re in a forest with a fish-tackle box of emergency medical supplies.

And these are yearlings that have been asleep for five months and have lost 1/3 of their body weight since last autumn. Their metabolism hasn’t fully started up again from the winter sleep. The physiology and drug metabolism of these bears is anyone’s guess. No text book can prepare one for these bear anesthetic events. Just experience, vigilance and being prepared for anything.

When it finally does, everything happens at once.

Sergey is suddenly springing across the snow with a limp cub in his arms. By the time she is lowered onto the tarp, Ian has a stethoscope pressed to her chest, and I am cleaning her mouth in preparation for an endotracheal tube. Cameras whirr and snap, and the man from the Argos company which donated two GPS tracking collars fits the collar in place.

Two volunteers measure the bear for morphometric data records. The endotracheal tube is in place, tied behind the ears with a length of string, but I’m not convinced that the bear is breathing. I call a halt to all activity to watch the abdomen, and hold a tuft of fur before the tube opening.

Move, move,…  I plead silently to the hairs.


Dr Ian Robinson, left IFAW veterinarian and Kati Loeffler, right, veterinary advisor, monitor a bear during the collaring.Seconds tick by. Nothing. I breathe into the cub’s lungs, take a breath, breathe again. Heart is still strong and regular, blood pressure good.

Just breathe, please baby, breathe.

After ten breaths I pause and we watch: five seconds, seven, ten, I inhale to breathe again into the tube, when whoosh, the bear’s lungs fill on their own, and I nearly lose my professional composure with an overwhelming desire to bury my face in that gorgeous peat-smelling fur and hug the breath right back out of her.

The second cub is hauled out, a big boy. His dose of drug was relatively less and he is not so deeply anaesthetized. He breathes steadily, his heart is slow and strong. Just after him comes the third, a small female. She is deep but stable. I place her endotracheal tube but we’ve lost a third string to hold it in place. As I glance around, a volunteer has torn the laces from his boot and tossed it over. He is monitoring the first female while Ian and I are busy with the other two.

His unlaced boot has already filled with snow but he is completely absorbed in the little bear, and probably wouldn’t have noticed if he was barefoot altogether. The tarp is a tangle of human limbs and hushed voices and camera lenses. But all I see is furry abdomens moving in, out, in, out; pink gums; strong pulses; the slightest irregularity. Emergency drugs are an arm’s reach away, syringes in my pockets, drug doses at the front of my brain. Ian is recording vital signs in his notebook. It’s a wet, ink-blotched record written on a knee, but it’s a record for all that.

At last the data collection  is finished and the collars are fitted. I inject the drug to reverse the anesthetic into each cub. Sergey shoos all of us back behind the fence, to watch the cubs wake up from a safe distance back.

The big boy lifts his head first, and licks his mouth as though waking from a rowdy Russian night of a bit too much vodka.  It isn’t long before he’s stumbling about in the soft snow, determined to pull his body through the fuzz in his brain. The bigger female soon follows. The male moves away a bit, but returns to the little female still fast asleep.

He makes his way to the other female, as though to check on her, and then back to the little one. She is so quiet that I can’t hold back and I beg Sergey to let me go check on her. He comes with me and jostles her a bit. We turn her over and she begins to blink and lick. Sergey and I smile at each other and return to our posts behind the fence. The male was not at all pleased with our intrusion and has squashed himself against the other female, huffing.

He checked on his little sister again. She was okay, rousing herself now. Sergey waved us on, up the path.

Time to go.

The sun is warm now, the snow soft beneath our feet.

My Russian felt boots are damp through the soles. Spring has begun, and so has the journey for three yearling brown bears in the great Tver forest.


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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy