How do you know when to rescue an orphaned Russian bear cub?

The cubs quickly begin to drink milk from a bottle. They each take 35 ml milk every 3-4 hours. They are kept in a warm room in a special wooden box with a heating pad on the floor, imitating their mother's warmth. c. IFAW

What makes an orphan?

When dealing with wild animals, it is hard to tell.

If you stumble upon a young animal in the wild, how are you to know for sure that the mother just hasn’t just ambled away for a short period of time? Or is nearby waiting for you to move along?

We at IFAW pay special attention to these situations when it comes to bringing what we think are orphan bear cubs to our rehabilitation center in Bubonitsy.

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Sergey Pazhetnov, OBRC Manager, has been studying bears for 25 years; Valentin Pazhetnov, for 54. They point out that there are no special scientific papers covering the issue; after all how could you conduct experiments to find out if a mother returns?

However, there were several cases described in the materials of the Central Forest Nature Reserve, published by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources (Letopys’ Prirody). They say that a female bear never returns to the den in winter.

We’ve had our own experiences that govern our protocols. One February, an inspector accompanied by a dog scared a female bear from her den. The inspectors decided to wait in hopes that the mother returned as the weather was mild and abnormally warm. IFAW OBRC was contacted six hours later.

Sergey requested to immediately take the bear cubs to a warm place. The inspectors, however, decided to wait until morning after they had been 14 hours without their mother’s body heat. All four bear cubs were delivered to IFAW OBRC severely cold. Despite emergency efforts and warming therapy, two of the cubs contracted pneumonia and eventually died 10 days later.

This case featured larger bear cubs (two months old weighing 2.5 kg) and in a relatively mild clime (-3 C). We predict that if a mother leaves smaller bear cubs (0.5 – 1 kg) in -20 to -35 C (i.e. normal Russian winter temperatures) the bear cubs without help will freeze to death anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

Simply put, we don’t have the luxury to wait in many circumstances.

In spring when the mother bear leaves the den with her bear cubs, she protects her cubs fiercely; she does so until they separate a year or two later. Everyone knows that a mother bear protects her cubs until the very end. So we know that she would rarely, if ever, abandon them in a time when they are most vulnerable.

If the mother is not present, we are to assume that something has happened to her, and we must rescue those cubs.


For more information about IFAW efforts to rehabilitate orphaned Russian bear cubs, visit our project page.

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