Wildlife Hospital Seeks Help for Hungry Patients

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After gathering, boiling and sorting acorns, Melissa Woodruff has a gallon of food for the bear cubs. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Unlike patients at a conventional hospital, the pediatric inpatients at The Wildlife Center of Virginia are not billed for their medical care, nor their spacious accommodations, nor their food. If the Center were to seek payment for the mountains of fruit, vegetables and nuts for the 19 bear cubs now enjoying their recuperation at the Waynesboro facility, the bill would be substantial: each cub chomps its way through about 70 pounds of produce and protein a week. 

Their diet varies. In the late winter, when the orphaned cubs are more likely to be infants (the average date of birth for bears is January 17, but the season is from December to February) the babies get a rich formula and then “mush bowls” with mixed fruits and grains along with the special milk. As they get older, they graduate to adult bear food.

More cubs now populate the bear complex than ever before, said Alex Wehrung, a spokesman for the Center, but the reasons are not clear. He believes it’s a combination of things. Climate change limits hibernation a bit, causing more encounters between humans and bears; encroaching residential development does the same. Humans, mostly humans in cars, are involved in most cases where cubs are orphaned. 

There’s another factor, he said. Through education and watching nature shows and live wildlife videos like the Center’s “critter cams,” the community’s more aware of the plight of young orphaned animals, and more likely to seek help for them.

Usually, donations of produce that’s almost at its “sell by” date from Charlottesville Whole Foods and the Waynesboro Kroger satisfy a great deal of the bear cubs’ needs, but the size of the 2020 class of clubs prompted the Center to ask for community help.

People rallied, Wehrung said. “They brought by plates of leftover food, cartons of Chinese take-out, things like that,” he said. “It was heartwarming.” 

While those of us who live near bears know they will eat almost anything, wildlife rehabilitators would rather bears not develop a taste for food that’s more likely to be in the bottom of suburban trash can than in the woods. They requested whole fruits, vegetables, and nuts. At present, most of of the 19 cubs are approaching the end of their first year, so they can eat regular food. In the autumn, as the older ones prepare to den, they have an increased need for protein and fat, furnished in the Virginia wild by walnuts and acorns.

Bear cub siblings are kept together for comfort. Photo submitted.

In Crozet, Melissa Woodruff and Mia Taylor wanted to help, and both identified a source of bear cub food on their property: Woodruff lives in the White Oak neighborhood of Crozet and is surrounded by oak trees; Taylor has a couple of black walnut trees and figured the bears that live near her home could spare a few walnuts for the cubs. 

Woodruff, an attorney who works for a Charlottesville firm, likes to be outdoors on the weekends, so she donned knee pads and went to work picking up the acorns accumulating in her back yard. Following instructions from the Wildlife Center, she ascertained the soundness of the acorns by submerging them in water and pouring off the ones that floated. “I had to throw away about half of them,” she said, but she has about a gallon of food for the young bears.

Mia Taylor found black walnuts were a challenge, too. After determining to do something to help the cubs, she noticed that her trees just weren’t producing this year. Luckily, a friend gave her some walnuts and she began soaking them. In the process, she lost a few to squirrels, but she plans to deliver them to the cubs after mashing them with a giant antique instrument she has on hand. 

A lot of people were touched by the plea for cub food, Wehrung said. “We can hardly move around in the kitchen.” The careful preparations by Woodruff and Taylor will go right into the freezer for later, Wehrung said, so it’s helpful to make sure no faulty food is taking up space. The need will continue, he said, and those wanting to donate food or cash should call the Center at 540-942-9453 for instructions.

Raising a bear cub

The rescue and rehabilitation of baby bears is a complicated journey. Infants are brought to the Wildlife Center, sometimes by the people who discover them and sometimes by the Virginia Department of Natural Resources, formerly the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. 

When working with private citizens, the VDNR takes care to help them make sure the animals are truly orphaned. 

If the cub is still an infant, the VDNR, which keeps track of known active dens, will try to introduce it to a mother bear in a den with other babies. “They place it outside the den and, even though the infant can’t see or hear yet, its voice is so loud that it actually wakes the mother from hibernation,” Wehrung said. No parent of a human newborn baby will doubt this, and sometimes it works. It’s the very best chance for a cub to survive in the wild later, Wehrung said.

Bear cub waiting for food at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Photo submitted.

It’s trickier when the infants are raised in the Center’s nursery. They must be bottle-fed, but their survival depends on remaining wild and suspicious of humans. On the other hand, they thrive in the wild with close contact and comfort from their mothers. The Center’s website says they allow a little bit of handling from specially trained rehabilitators up to a certain stage. “Their contact is always limited,” Wehrung said. As the cubs get older, the littler ones get comfort and physical contact from other cubs, many of whom were rescued at older stages of growth.

Once out of isolation, they play together on bear playgrounds, climbing, jumping and sliding like human children; tumbling together in hammocks to sleep; and getting increasingly larger portions of appropriate food. Graduation for the cubs means release into the huge bear compound at the Center, where the situation is very similar to a real-life forest situation, including a little competition for food. Food is delivered every few days when the staff dumps quantities of fruits, vegetables and nuts from towers situated above the compound. That way, the bears don’t connect people with food and must forage for the far-flung produce. 

Every bear has a story

Often those who find the cubs don’t know what happened to the mothers, but the majority of the mothers have probably been hit by cars. Mothers are known to leave their cubs for fairly long periods of time, but if cubs are seen without their mothers for a day or two, it’s likely that they’re orphans. A few examples:

The Easter orphans were rescued when a trucker hit a sow on Interstate 64 on Easter Saturday, then called the state police, who noticed the two cubs 50 or 60 feet up a tree. A crowd gathered and watched the cubs until a cherry picker from the local electric company appeared on the scene. The cherry picker got stuck in the mud and was pulled out by a local automotive repair company. Finally, the community watched as the hungry cubs were pulled out of the tree. Wildlife Center notes say that both the cherry picker and the repair company drivers refused any payment. Since there was no doubt the cubs were orphans, they were brought immediately to the Center.  

Two Smyth County orphans were found by a homeowner in a box on his porch with no explanation, and were ultimately brought to the Center. Infant bear cubs are tiny and weak and unable to climb out of a box. 

The Cowpasture cubs were found by a farmer in his field, and he couldn’t find any sign of their mother. He returned from time to time and found them in the same place. Wildlife authorities learned that a mother bear had been killed by a car earlier that week.  After a day of observing them, still without their mother, the farmer arranged for them to be rescued. 

For a complete story about how bears and people interact in Virginia, go to www.crozetgazette.com/2018/06/08/black-bears-and-the-goldilocks-principle-how-many-is-just-right.

The stories of all 19 cubs can be found on The Wildlife Center of Virginia website, www.wildlifecenter.org, along with the progress of all the animals at the Center, and a number of ways that citizens can help. You’ll also find news about the yearly gala and silent auction, now in progress. 

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