Little Yoga Bear
By Erin Rohlman
Ever since my husband Jeff and I moved to the McCall area in 1986, it seems we have been involved with helping Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary and its founder Linda DeEulis. Jeff is a retired Wildlife Biologist (Regional Manager) with Idaho Department of Fish & Game and is now on the Snowdon Board of Directors. I am also retired, and having always been a huge wildlife advocate, I’ve been volunteering more for the sanctuary since Linda’s passing. Jeff and I also operate a satellite wildlife care facility at our home for Snowdon’s special needs cases.
So, when there was a 3-month gap between managers one year at Snowdon, we happily stepped in to manage the facility, along with help from other Board members and a trove of dedicated volunteers. It was in the fall of 2017 when we received a particularly distressing call from Jake – Jake had a bear cub in his house. It was snowing and a bitter cold November day, and we wondered how this man ended up with a bear cub in his house. The cub would be 9 months old at this point and surely far too big and feisty for someone to have in a house, so…. Hmmmm…. Jake said that he found the cub lying in the road near his house. He instinctively just scooped it up in a blanket and rushed it home. The cub didn’t put up any sort of fight. Over the phone, Jake said that the cub was small and appeared injured and, in fact, that its head was “oozing.” Jeff immediately contacted the Idaho Fish & Game Regional Manager to coordinate with her regarding this rescue need.
We soon arrived at Jake’s house in a particularly blinding snow swirl. Several friendly border collies appeared out of nowhere to greet us. They seemed to multiply out of the snow dust! But it was all tail wags and some puppy love, so all was good. Then Jake appeared and escorted us into the house. What I saw next was heartbreaking. A tiny bear cub, one of the smallest I’ve ever seen, was staggering around the kitchen area. Its back was hunched, and its face was so thin that it didn’t even look like a bear. In fact, Jake pulled up a cell phone image of a sloth bear from Asia and asked me if this is what the cub was! I said “No, this is a starving black bear cub. It is near death.” Then I had to choke back a few tears. Jake and his wife showed us how they had set up a crate with lots of warm blankets, food, water, and a tiny tether to keep the cub from crawling off. They had kept it overnight and fed it lots of bananas and apples, which it devoured each time something was offered. Just as I remarked that bears don’t usually like bananas, Jake peeled one and the cub grabbed it slowly and ate it. The couple and their two young children had taken care of this dying cub the previous evening, and by the time we saw it the following morning, the cub had regained enough energy to do a little hissing and chomping at the humans. This was a very good sign! The bad sign, however, was the infected head wound. It was oozing and nasty, looking like the cub had been attacked by a predator or perhaps hit by a car some time ago. I wasn’t hopeful that a bear cub at this level of starvation could survive an infection like that. Jeff managed to get the cub into our crate, and we thanked Jake and his family for saving this little female bear. The kids had named her Yogi but then changed it to Yoga when they saw it was female. Soon, we were off in our snowstorm for the drive to Snowdon to begin her rehabilitation.
As we approached the gate at the sanctuary, we intercepted the new winter caretaker on her way out. Her name was Erin, too, and I asked if she wanted to help us give medical attention to a starving bear cub. She turned her car around faster than I thought possible in deep snow! This was Erin’s second day at Snowdon, and it turned out to be the bear cub’s lucky day that we brought Erin back with us. It seems Erin had lots of wildlife rehabilitation experience, and, even better, she loved to dress infected wounds! Infections are not my favorite thing at all, and to tell the truth, I have been known to gag at the sight and smell of such things. Jeff is much more tolerant of dry heaving, so he usually deals with this part of life as we help our animal friends through such traumas. So, with this bear cub, Jeff sedated her and did a physical exam, Erin masterfully drained and dressed the head wound and injected subcutaneous fluids to counter the severe dehydration, while I played nurse, handing them supplies and taking notes. We put this tiny thing on the scale and had to recoil when it read just ten pounds. A nine-month-old cub that weighed ten pounds was simply heart-wrenching. The tiny body had not an ounce of fat on it. Yoga had been starving for quite some time, probably losing her mother back in June and fending for herself for the past five months. No one could believe she had survived this long. It is against all odds.
Yoga spent the next several days in a large crate inside the warm sanctuary clinic building. The outside temperatures were dipping below freezing, and we knew little Yoga didn’t have any body fat for insulation. We also knew it was time to transfer her to an outside pen when, after about five days inside, she showed a lot more normal bear cub aggression during feedings and cage cleanings. Before we let her go, though, we had to “decorate” her outdoor pen. I wanted it to have plenty of places for her to hide, so Erin and June, our Snowdon Board of Directors president, helped me cut and haul in some tree branches to place all around Yoga’s pen, weaving a few through the chain link fencing, and making lots of soft places to nest in. Jeff spent about an hour cub-proofing this pen, which had previously been used for a bobcat as well as many rounds of orphaned ducks and geese. Turns out it had a few holes in the fencing that this tiny cub could squeeze through, or worse, get injured from during any escape attempts. Jeff patched them all quickly and thoroughly. After that, the pen was Yoga’s little paradise for 6 weeks. She had a huge array of gourmet foods at her disposal…. savory designer dog food recently donated by our local pet store, lots of apples, greens, berries, honey, peanut butter, meat chunks of donated fish, beef, pork, venison, and whatever else anyone could give her to that might add fat to her tiny body. The plan was to move her into the one-acre forested pen with another orphaned cub as soon as she gained enough weight. Yoga needed strength to fend him off should the other male cub be aggressive around the food bowl.
Soon enough, it became hugely apparent that all our TLC paid off for Yoga. After six weeks, we decided it was time for her move in with the other cub. She needed to climb real trees and become a real bear, hopefully making fast friends with the other cub. Jeff sedated Yoga for one last health assessment and weight. The health check was amazing! First, she weighed a whopping 44 pounds. No way! – the scale must be off. We weighed her again to make sure it wasn’t off by 20 pounds or so. We had all guesstimated she weighed 24 pounds. But no, it was 44 pounds. When we spread her out to check her former head wound, the fat covering her body rippled like Jell-O at every touch. Even her head wound had completely healed. A nice patch of dark brown fur had covered every square millimeter of what had been an open wound. She was not even going to have a scar! I noticed that her undercoat of fur was coming in gray/brown rather than her normal light brown coat. It was really pretty, reminding me of a roan-colored horse, one of my favorite horse colors. I think perhaps the stress of starvation changed her coat color for this year, and maybe her future coats will return to brown. But I kind of hope not, since that roan color was just so darn cool. We finished Yoga’s exam and took her out to her new home for the next seven months. She eventually woke up from her sedation, staggered around a bit, ate an apple, and then finally made her way out the door and into the snow and trees of her new pen. I got a few cool photos of her climbing her first tree. Once we saw that she was back in control of her limbs and could climb like a pro, we left her to explore her new acre of forest and meet her new bear cub roommate.
Just a few days after her release into the large enclosure, Jeff noted that both sets of snowy bear cub tracks led into a winter den structure that we had stuffed with fresh hay. The two cubs had found each other and were now denning together in the shelter to pass the winter months! I teared up as I reflected that this was the best thing I could have hoped for. These cubs, who started off life in the worst possible way, were now happy, warm, well-fed, and on their way to resuming wild lives, now with a best buddy.
In early June, Jeff was able to catch the two cubs and release them into the wild, both in the same area. They were released about 5 hours apart because they were caught at different times in their sanctuary pen. However, Jeff was confident they would reunite soon using their incredible senses of smell. Hopefully they could explore their new wild habitat together for several months before natural instincts kicked in, sending them on separate journeys. This is, after all, the best we could possibly hope for with wild bears.
Tiny bear cub found along road in November
Yoga’s belly fat after 6 weeks at Snowdon