2015 Year in Review: Leighann Cline, Wildlife Rehabilitator

It’s time to look back on 2015! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2015 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Bottle-feeding black bear cubs is definitely one of the highlights of my wildlife rehabilitation career thus far. But no matter how many cubs I feed, they could never compare to the three tiniest bear cubs I have ever seen!

Bear cubs in Virginia are typically born in December-January while the mother is in the den, but we normally don’t start receiving our bear cubs until the early spring. This is when bears wake from hibernation and are moving around and more people are in the woods disturbing dens. In January, three tiny cubs came to us, after a homeowner found them on the ground. It wasn’t exactly clear how these cubs got out into the open, but when it started to snow several hours later, the cubs came to us. These tiny cubs didn’t look anything like the usual fuzzy cubs I’m used to seeing. We estimated their ages to be about only two or three weeks old. There is not a whole lot of information out there on rehabilitating bear cubs this young, but for neonates of that age, we know that a ‘round-the-clock feeding schedule was in order. A few of us took turns with the feedings, coming back to the Center at all hours to keep these babies fed until we could make a plan for them.

These little guys really pulled at your heartstrings. They were so small and fragile, only a couple weeks old, and completely dependent on us for their survival. It turned out to be quite a challenge getting them to eat. Anytime we handled them, they screamed bloody murder. I was completely SHOCKED at the set of lungs they had on them! (No wonder the homeowner heard them in the woods.) It actually got to the point that I considered wearing earplugs while feeding to protect my hearing!

We weren’t really prepared to feed bears of their size; while we have a variety of nipples to feed everything from squirrels to fawns, none of these worked well for bears. The small nipples only frustrated the cubs, they didn’t fit in their mouths properly to form a sucking seal; this only increased their screaming power! The larger nipples allowed too much fluid to pass at once causing the cubs to cough. I finally ended up using a new, large nipple and instead of cutting the tip where it was supposed to be, I used a pin to create my own hole. This took some trial and error (more screaming) to find just the right sized hole that allowed just the right amount of fluid to pass through.

The weekend passed like that, and the cubs gained weight and seemed healthy enough – but we knew we couldn’t keep this up for long. These guys were so young and the more interaction we had with them the higher their chances of them becoming habituated to humans. Luckily, their stay was very short-lived. A few days after the cubs arrived, Dr. Dave announced that the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) was looking for a foster den and foster mom for the cubs, and they already had a couple of leads. The next day, we were informed that the cubs needed to be fed and ready to go as soon as possible; an officer from DGIF successfully fostered these three cubs into an active den that afternoon. He reported that the mother was alerted to the officers’ approach when she heard the cubs crying, so the officer cautiously placed the cubs on the ground near the den and back away slowly. As he did so, he actually saw the mom take a cub and retreat back into her den. By the time he got to a safe distance, all three cubs had been retrieved! These three cubs could not have been in better hands. We try our best to be a substitute mother to all of our young wild charges, but a wild mom is always best! I’m so glad I had the experience of helping these cubs during their short stay; it is one I will never forget!

-- Leighann

Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!