Bear necessities

Three little black bears find new home in the wild with surrogate mom
These three bear cubs were discovered in Basye. Staff from the Virginia Wildlife Services found them a new den and mother to live with. Courtesy photo
One of the bear cubs drinks from a bottle. Courtesy photo

Three 3-week-old black bear cubs have been safely returned to the wilderness.

“I am hugely happy that these cubs will be able to go back to a bear that will nurse them,” said Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach for the Virginia Wildlife Center. “There is no replacement for a bear mom.”

The cubs were successfully reintroduced to the wild in an active bear den on Jan. 27 by biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

A landowner in Bayse discovered the cubs on Jan. 23 after hearing them crying while he was cutting wood, according to Jamie Sajecki, black bear project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Sajecki noted that the noise from the landowner’s chainsaw may have caused the mother to leave the cubs.

Nicholson said sows will, in the presence of humans or a threat, leave to protect their young by not “drawing attention” to them.

Sows typically return to their cubs once they feel it’s safe or that human activity in the area has subsided, Sajecki said.

Black bear mothers will typically search for their young within a window of about 24 hours before moving on. In this situation, the sow did not return and, Sajecki said, the landowner picked up the cubs and contacted the department.

“In most cases, we would have told him to put the cubs back right away,” she said, adding that because the cubs were on the ground and it was starting to snow and it had been long enough, they were transported to the Virginia Wildlife Center in Waynesboro.

Nicholson said the cubs were in good health when they arrived, but were slightly dehydrated and “probably missed a feeding while they were out there.”

After re-hydrating the cubs, Nicholson said wildlife center staff started the process of feeding the cubs with a “special formula created for black bears … with all of the fat and protein requirements that the cubs need.”

While the Wildlife Center was taking care of the cubs, Sajecki said the department started looking for a new home “immediately after hearing about the case.”

She said they received a tip regarding an active black bear den from a local hunter the weekend following the discovery of the cubs.

“[They] happened to be out and see a bear poking her head out of a den in another part of the state. We went and investigated that on Monday,” Sajecki said.

This particular den turned out to be the perfect match, partially because the sow had already given birth to cubs — a virtual prerequisite for agencies considering reintroduction to a den.

After biologists quickly dropped the cubs off,  Sajecki said that “within a minute [the surrogate mother] had picked up the three cubs and had taken them into the den with her.”

After that, Sajecki said, all of the cubs were quiet, which meant they “were happily brought into the den.”

Nicholson said that, depending on the year, they may see quite a few orphaned or injured black bears.

In a lot of cases, she said, the cubs become orphaned when a car hits their mother. And, also depending on how long it takes, reintroduction can be very successful.

“We have a pretty good success rate with the young animals, as long as they were quickly picked [up] and brought to us,” Nicholson said.

The center, she said, tries to discourage residents from inadvertently “kidnapping” seemingly orphaned animals, which is something that can make reintroduction especially difficult.

“Some people don’t know … that mom is probably right around the area, waiting for humans to leave,” Nicholson explained.

Both the department and the wildlife service advise residents to leave the animals and the area alone, in case the mother returns.

When the cubs become too friendly and human dependent, or if it takes too long to locate an active den, the Wildlife Center will attempt to place the animals in a zoo.

In this case, both Nicholson and Sajecki expressed that this reintroduction is promising due to the situation of the den as well as quick timing involved with the case.

Nicholson said that because the cubs are “extremely young and their eyes are closed” and are in an active den with a surrogate mother, this situation is expected to be very successful.

“We were fairly nervous that this might take a while,” Nicholson said, adding that they were relieved when the den was located.

 Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or

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