By Randy Arrington
WAYNESBORO — This is the story of three little bears from Luray who lost their way, and the humans helping them get back to the wild.
“Some people heard the cubs crying in a field behind their house. They picked them up, put them in a box and put them outside to give mama bear one last chance to come and collect them,” said Amanda Nicholson, Director of Outreach for the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
“That’s always the fear,” Nicholson continued. “We want to help them, but we never want to unintentionally kidnap them.”
Mama bear did not return for her cubs. So, those who found them called wildlife officials to see how they could help.
Weighing less than 2.5 pounds each, the “tiny little cubs” were malnourished when they were brought to the wildlife center by biologist from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“They were a bit thin and dehydrated, so just based on the fact that they were a little bit skinny and dehydrated our vet thought they were truly orphaned and without their mom for a few days,” Nicholson said. “We gave them fluids and started bottle feeding them, and they perked up and started playing around.”
Since the non-profit was founded in 1982, the Wildlife Center of Virginia has treated more than 80,000 animals representing more than 200 species brought to the center by VDGIF and a wide network of volunteers stretching across the Old Dominion. Not all of the animals get released back into the wild due the severity of their condition when they arrive.
“Since we are a wildlife hospital, we tend to see some bad trauma cases,” Nicholson said. “We are almost like an emergency room for wildlife.”
The Waynesboro facility is the only place in Virginia that takes in black bears — and it has been a record-breaking year for admissions.
“We have had 18 bear cubs come in this year. This is the most we have ever had before for sure,” Nicholson said. “Typically we would have maybe eight or nine. It’s been intimidating having this many this year — and it’s [barely] June.”
Black bear cubs are usually born around January, and wildlife biologists estimate that the Luray cubs are nearly 5 months old. An ample food supply, according to Nicholson, could explain why there have been an abundance of young black bears coming to the wildlife center.
“It was a good acorn crop last year, so that’s plays a part in the mother bear mating and having babies and maybe more babies,” Nicholson said. “In years where food is not as plentiful they only have one cub, but it was a good acorn year in most parts of the state. We have seen several sets of triplets like these guys [from Luray] and that can certainly affect things. If there’s one mom with three cubs and something happens to her, that can escalate things quickly.”
And these busy times for the wildlife center are not just focused on bears — currently their wildlife biologists and caretakers are treating more than 200 patients spanning a few dozen species.
“Last year was a record-breaking year, and currently we are ahead of where we were at this time last year,” Nicholson said. “So it will probably get even more intense… it’s the busy season because everything is reproducing and there are lots of little animals.”
The three black bear cubs from Luray will be bottle feed twice a day until late June when they are weened.
“Bear cubs kind of tell us when they are ready in terms of being done with their formula,” Nicholson said. “They begin to naturally prefer the other food that we offer. They are typically weened toward the end of June.”
By July, the cubs will be eating a variety of foods that the omnivores normally consume, from fruits and vegetables to seeds, insects, worms, crickets and different forms of needed protein.
“Sometimes we will throw in some fish so they eat some meat as well… small amounts of dry dog food,” Nicholson added. “It’s hard to replicate a totally natural diet, but we strive to do that.”
The Luray cubs (and their 15 new friends) will likely remain at the wildlife center until next spring, when they are ready for release back into the wild.
“Bears are one of our longer term patients for sure,” Nichoilson said. “In the wild , they would be with their mom until that time… spring, when they emerge from their caves. We try to stay with that timeline, so they will be with us until next year.”
The large group of cubs will build up their independence during the next year, learning how to interact with one another and how to fend for themselves. However, it’s also important that they don’t get used to their humans caretakers.
“We have found that if you release them earlier they are just not grown up enough to figure things out,” Nicholson explained. “The big thing is to make sure that they are not used to people. The key seems to be introducing them to very few people. They may get to know three or four people. But they don’t necessarily associate people as their friends.”
As they grow over the next year, the cubs will have a half-acre complex to explore, look for food, play and socialize with other animals until their projected release back into the wild in April 2021. The 18 cubs will be released in small groups of two to four that seem to get along, according to Nicholson. Wildlife biologists will tag their ears before release, so they may be identified at a later time.
Prior to their release, the cubs can be viewed playing on the wildlife center’s LIVE Critter Cam at: https://www.wildlifecenter.org/critter-corner/current-patients/black-bear-cubs-20-0965-0966-and-0967
For those who would like to volunteer to help Virginia’s wildlife as a transporter in Page County, or for those who would like to donate to the non-profit’s mission, visit their website at: wildlifecenter.org
Nicholson said that volunteers need “no special qualifications, just a willingness to help.”
She adds that the LIVE Critter Cam serves two main purposes.
“They are super helpful to our staff, to see what [the animals] are doing when no one is standing right there… it helps with monitoring and things like that,” the center’s outreach director said. “But another big thing is community interest and engaging with supporters who are interested in our work.
“And they are fun and engaging to watch.”