Story Of Three: Will The Newest Arrivals Make It?

Weighing_in Late in the evening, about 9:30 p.m. three tiny new bear cubs were delivered to IFAW's orphan bear cub rehabilitation center in the remote village Bubonitsy. After a journey of more than 12 hours, 780 kilometers, over very rough roads from the Novgorod region, the cubs were stressed, huddling together and quiet in the television box in which they were carried.

Sergey briefly examined the cubs to ensure there were no injuries needing immediate care, and then quickly delivered the cubs, still in their familiar cardboard box, into the warm, dark bear cub den house where they could sleep for the night and recover from their journey.

The three female cubs are about the same age as the other nine cubs already residing at the center, but they are extremely underweight. The largest of these sisters was just 2400 grams, about half the size of the largest of the cubs that have received cared at the center for the past two months.

After admitting the cubs to the center, Sergey interviewed the three young men who had delivered the cubs, and determined that the cubs had likely only been away from their mother for about 3-4 days while arrangements were made for the long and difficult journey to the orphan bear center. The bears could not have become so underweight in such a short time.

It is likely that their mother had been having a hard time feeding them prior to their rescue, either because she is a first time mother with little experience, or because she is underweight herself and not making enough food. Even if the mother had stayed with the cubs in the wild, it is not likely that all three of the cubs would have survived. Perhaps only the largest would have had a chance.

Leading the cubs’ journey to the orphan bear center was the hunt inspector from the Tver region, who relayed to us the story of how the cubs were found. In the forest near the border of Tver, Novgorod, a dog accompanying a man on a fishing trip startled the mother bear who abandoned the den. The Novgorod hunting inspector was notified and they watched the den but the mother did not return.

Knowing that the cubs could not survive the cold without their mother, the hunt inspector retrieved the bears and began planning for their transfer. According to the hunt inspector, the mother bear and the cubs were not in a den, which is unusual for this time of year. The female tried to scare the man from the cubs, attacking him. He managed to escape.

Valentin Sergeevich thinks that the only explanation could be that earlier the pregnant female was frightened from her den and left it, then gave birth and stayed with the cubs on the surface. That can also explain the state of the cubs.

Before moving the bears, their caregivers attempted to feed the bears with cow's milk from a bottle. However, it usually takes the bears 3-5 days to learn how to properly drink from a bottle. Sergey did not want to further stress the bears by attempting to feed them the first night. Being held by humans, and using a bottle, is a foreign and stressful experience for the bears. They do not naturally latch on to the nipple, and their mouths have to be held closed on it for some time before they realize that they get more food by sucking on it than they do by biting it.

It is a challenge for caregivers to gently and firmly encourage the cubs to feed, holding them without speaking or cuddling them so that they do imprint on humans as a source of warmth and comfort but rather imprint on their fellow cubs.

“Every step is important, and throughout we have always minimized human contact so they can live normal lives back in the forest,” Valentin notes. 

The Novgorod hunt inspector contacted the hunt inspector in the Tver region, who offered to bring the bears to Bubonitsy. The early thaw in Russia has wreaked havoc on the roads, washing away great chunks of asphalt and dotting hundred kilometer stretches with deep potholes that will take weeks to repair.

A friend joined the hunt inspector on the 780 kilometer journey to the bear center so that they could take turns driving during the 12-hour transit. An acquaintance from a nearby town, Toropets, guided them to the remote center. After delivering the bears and a quick cup of tea, the men had to embark once again so they could return to work after spending two days off to save the cubs.

“We get calls from all over, from loggers and other people who find cubs and contact us because they know we take care of them,” Svetlana says.  “But Russia is a huge place with almost endless forests, and we know that for every group we raise there are many more, perhaps hundreds, who perish because no one finds them in time.”

In the morning, Sergey and Ian conducted a more formal examination of the cubs, inspecting their paws and tongues to see if they are retaining heat, measuring and weighing them. By the size of their heads and the length of their bodies, it was easy to tell they were of the same age as the other bear cubs at the center. However, they were extremely underweight, giving them the appearance of having very large heads and tiny bodies with which to hold them up.

Svetlana commented that while the cubs condition was not good, it was normal for cubs delivered to the center. Most bear cubs, if delivered to the center in time, begin to put on weight much faster than they would in the wild. On the third attempt, the new cubs began eating. They are weighed every five days, so we will know soon if they are gaining any weight. After seeing the bear eat and observing them for a few days, Sergey is more optimistic about their chances for survival, but their progress over the next few days is critical.

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