2013 Year in Review: Ed Clark, President: A Year to "Bear-up" Under Pressure!

It’s time to look back on 2013! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2013 from the staff, students, and volunteers of the Wildlife Center.

It is amazing to me that this is the 31st year I have had the chance to reflect on the accomplishments of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, as we prepare to flip one more page on the calendar and begin another new year.

Before we say goodbye to 2013, it is appropriate to look back on the year, and reflect on what we have done, how we have done it, and what difference it makes.

Certainly, we would all agree that this has been “The Year of the Bear” ... with 25 black bears admitted as patients, a total that shattered previous records. However, while these 25 high profile and extremely popular patients gained a great deal of public attention as they basked in the media spotlight, the most significant aspect of this year was not that we had them; it was the way in which the Wildlife Center family cared for them, coped with them, accommodated them, and built them a new home. While the bears brought us great joy, they also were a very great hardship for the staff and the organization, both in terms of the dramatically increased workload, and the tremendous pressure the bears put on our operating budget.

The story of WCV’s involvement with bears goes back several years. Mostly, we have cared for injured bears over the last three decades. Young cubs which had been orphaned used to be transported to Virginia Tech, where professor and black bear researcher Dr. Michael Vaughan maintained a small group of female bears in captivity each winter. He would collect three or four pregnant female bears, allow them to give birth in captivity, and study the reproductive process and the physiology of hibernation. In the early months of the year, any orphaned cubs that were found would simply be “fostered” with one of the captive mothers. That worked fine until Dr. Vaughan retired and the bear research project was halted.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) found itself with no place for very young black bear cubs. Unfortunately, this meant that three young cubs were euthanized in the spring of 2012. When we got word of this at the Wildlife Center, we talked it over and we stepped up to the plate. We informed DGIF that, if they would help us do so, we would accept any and all black bears needing help, and we would develop the facilities to rear and rehabilitate them properly. And so the adventure began.

The original plan was to have begun construction on a $400,000 complex in late 2012, with the idea that the facility would be finished in time for the 2013 crop of cubs. DGIF pledged to contribute $200,000, with WCV providing the rest. However, as is often the case with government projects, funding agreements from the State, and permits from the feds (the new facility is on National Forest land) took a bit longer than expected … SIX MONTHS longer than expected.

While construction on the main project did not begin until June of 2013, the first orphaned cubs arrived much earlier than that, placing a real burden on existing facilities. Knowing that the new Black Bear Rearing and Rehabilitation Complex would not be done in time, we had to develop an interim solution to the rapidly growing bear population at WCV.

What became known as Phase I of the bear project was undertaken. This is a 40’ X 16’ welded wire enclosure with two chambers and connecting passages that allowed the bears to be outdoors, but still enabled us to manage and maintain them properly. Thanks to the WCV Critter Cams, our friends and supporters around the world were able to watch our cubs turn into large and powerful animals. Through it all, the WCV staff kept smiling and kept up with the astonishing demands of feeding and cleaning the bears.

We are finally nearing the day when the cubs will be moved into the new complex and the interim facility can be emptied -- for now, anyway. While the WCV made this all look easy, the burden of extra work was incredible.

Consider these issues:

  • Food for the bears was measured in five-gallon buckets—four buckets per feeding, three feedings per day. That is sixty gallons of chopped fruit, veggies, nuts, berries and all sorts of other things … every day, seven days per week.
  • The cost of the interim facility was NOT included in the project budget, so capital expenses ran about $55,000 over what we had projected. Our savings took a major hit.
  • Since the bears were doing on concrete what wild bears do in the woods, we had to clean the cages daily and dispose of huge volumes of litter and soiled bedding. Instead of having our dumpster emptied weekly, we had to increase service to daily, increasing the cost of waste management five-fold. This was another hit on our budget.
  • The sheer workload of cleaning the bear enclosure and preparing sixty gallons of food each day, to say nothing of the logistics of securing and storing food supplies and bedding, added a tremendous burden to the rehabilitation staff, students, and volunteers.
  • In addition to all of this extra work for the bears, WCV was turned into a major construction site during our busiest time of the year, because of the delays in construction, and the loss of more than four weeks of progress due to heavy rains.

Throughout the entire process, in spite of mud, noise, extra workload, intense public interest and engagement with the bears and the construction project, every single member of the WCV staff stepped up, carried the extra load, answered the flood of questions, solved the problems and challenges we encountered, and generally carried on in good form.

So, as we watch 2013 come to a close, what I remember most about the year is the pride I feel in the people who have pulled off an incredible challenge with style, grace, and consummate professionalism. They really did make it all look easy; but it was NOT easy. Our legion of friends and contributors have provided the support to get us through, but the glue that held it all together was a group of 20 professionals who have dedicated their lives to “teaching the world to care about, and care for, wildlife and the environment.” And, this year, they taught by example, because there could be no group of people anywhere who care more about wildlife, or who had done more to care for it. I’m so lucky to be a part of such a team.

We all embrace 2014 as another year full of the opportunity to do even more to help wildlife.

--Ed Clark


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