Black Bear Rehab

Bear rehabber Sally Maughan, Producer Bruce Reichert and Director/Videographer Pat Metzler

Sally Maughan has been rehabilitating bears through the Idaho Black Bear Rehab Program for more than 20 years in Garden City, Idaho. She prepares bears to be confident out in the wilderness upon their release. This interview was conducted in the spring of 2011.

Bruce Reichert: How did you get involved in rehabilitating bears?

Sally Maughan: When I got a call on a bear cub, my vision of a bear was the Kodiak Alaskan brown bears that are twenty feet high and could take your head off with one bite. So I said no, I’m not that stupid. And they kept after me, so I finally said, how much does the bear weigh? Five pounds. Okay, I can handle that. So I went ahead and took it, and it wasn’t but about ten days, two weeks, before I realized that from that point on, my life was about bears. I didn’t intend this, I just knew.

B: So people just call you?

S: No, it’s always Fish and Game. Usually always. They might call us having spotted a bear.

B: What is important to know if you’re rehabbing bears?

S: Bears go through about four stages of development: the infant stage where it is all about feeding, bowel movements, sleeping and some basic play.

Then they go into the terrible twos. It really follows raising a kid, only in months instead of years. Temper tantrums: ‘I want what I want, I want it now and you are going to give it to me and if you don’t I’m going to bite you.’

And then we go into the teenage stage, which is when they are weaned, and they are feeling very invincible. In reality, they get so reckless that that’s the time I worry most about.

And then they go into what I call a college stage. They reason things out, and think things through. Their wild instincts start to develop, so the difference between the two is basically, if you give the teenage stage a box, they’ll rip it to pieces - it doesn’t matter what is in it – immediately for play. If you give it to them during the college stage, they first think, ‘wonder what is in there I might want,’ and they figure that out first, and then they rip it apart.

B: What do you feed captive bears?

S: When they first come in, let’s say three to four weeks old, we have a special formula we developed early on in the program. It’s a combination of two powders – multi-milk and Espilac that we mix three parts to one, and then we mix it with one or two parts of water depending on the age.

And we used to use Gerber’s peach baby cereal to sweeten it because it is a sour formula. Now we use that as well as wilderness pie filling, whatever will sweeten it up a little bit. They’re not crazy about honey, oddly enough, in the formula.

We sweeten it, we bottle feed anywhere from two ounces to as many as six bottles a day depending on what they want or how old they are. Young ones will eat maybe one or two ounces in the beginning.

A sedated bear lays on the ground.When their eyes are closed, you’ve got to stimulate bowel movements, you’ve got to get urine and stools out of them every time you feed, and then it’s just a matter of letting them sleep and grow.

Bottle babies will always see me as mom. There is just no way around that, and they’re a little more social with me than bears who just come in after they’re weaned. And I sometimes think the bears who come in after they’re weaned kind of look at me and say, ‘well, look how they are behaving with her. She seems okay. She must just be a funny looking bear.’

When the eyes open, they become more active, kind of like not being able to walk very well and stumbling all over, but from then on it is pretty interesting. Then, they become bears. It’s ‘I’m a bear, and I know I’m a bear, and this is what I want, and you best give it to me.’

When they are on formula and solids, they can go through as much as a gallon or two of milk a day. Then they get all into solid foods - fruit and dog food, fish, grass, and that kind of thing. We want them to just be bears among bears, and so once they’re weaned we keep all people away from them. When we go to feed and clean, it’s in and out as quick as we can.

B: I imagine it’s a real problem if you show fear.

S: It is. Those are generally adult bears. If I had these when they were adult, I would face that same situation. I still could get very hurt because that wild instinct is now fully developed and it never goes away.

Occasionally you’ll have bears that challenge you, and that can be intimidating if you’re not used to working with bears. I may be five foot two, and he may be as tall as I am, weigh more than I do, but I’m the one in charge and I let him know it. And they respect that.

This is the rowdiest group of bears in twenty-two years I’ve ever had. Washington bears wrestle and play very hard, but these guys broke that record a long time ago. When I’m at work at my desk and I’m watching them on the monitor from 10:30, 11:00 in the morning, till close to dusk, they are wrestling and chasing at full speed up and down until I’m exhausted just watching them.

They are just adorable, wonderful creatures, and they have such a spirit about them. They are very smart, very intelligent. I can’t even imagine my life without bears.

Two sedated bears lay on tarps while rehabbers work on them.B: How many bears have you dealt with?

S: We’ve had to date approximately 208 bears, including the ones that we have now. We’ve had as many as one; the average is eight to fifteen. We’ve had as many as 50 in 2007, a really bad year, so we had to spread them out and do some early releases.

B: What is the one thing that Idahoans don’t realize about bears?

S: They don’t get to see the kid in the bear. They’re out in the woods and they see a bear and it’s immediately ‘oh my gosh I might get hurt.’ I’m very lucky to be able to see the kid in the bear, to see this playful wonderful adorable animal having fun and not wanting to hurt anybody. When they mature then, of course, out in the woods everything is a threat. They have to be protecting themselves.

All bears are born January-February so you kind of guess at the age when they come in. And these would be now yearlings – 15, 16 months old and twice as developed mentally, physically, everything as a bear their same age in the wild. They have been independent of mom, whereas bears that are now being kicked away from mom have been with her all that time and dependent on her. So they’re pretty confident bears. They know they are bears.

B: What does it cost to rehab a bear?

S: I average it at $1,400.00. I upped it to $1,900.00. It is probably more than that in reality, closer to $2,500.

B: What circumstances brought them to you?

S: It could be anything. Sometimes they’re found during hunting season but that doesn’t mean mom was shot by hunters. Usually a female will stash her cubs, and so a hunter may not even see them. We’ve had car accidents – mom killed by a car, fires, droughts, perhaps another bear, a male got in a fight and separated them. Sometimes first-time mothers will abandon cubs, or if they think something is wrong with it, they’ll abandon it. The majority we don’t really ever know. We’ve had some from poaching.

B: Where did you get the bears you have now?

Rehabbers hoist a sedated bear on a tarp, in preparation for moving it.S: These are all Washington bears, so they’ll all go back to Washington. We can’t release out of state bears here in Idaho. And Washington does a really nice release. They do an ear tag tattoo and radio collar. At night we get up there with them, and then the next morning we drive to the release site. It could be an hour away, could be two hours away and then they have bear dogs, and they have rubber bullets and make a lot of noise and when that door opens, those bears want to get out of there and they are gone. And then they monitor them after that.

It’s a very big day. It’s what you work for, it’s what the bears work for, my stomach is in turmoil because you want everything to go right and smoothly. You don’t want any problems, and you know they are stressed. It’s kind of one of those things you don’t sleep the night before, and you kind of collapse after it’s over. I think most of us recognize that to a wild animal, freedom is everything, whether it is ten minutes or three years. If you give them that ten minutes, or that three years, that’s what it is about.

People say they each go their own way, but I personally know and feel that if they want to pair back up again, they will. They are their own security blanket in a whole new strange world again. Both Oregon and Washington have proven that they do pair back up – sometimes for a day, sometimes a week, and then that is it.

We hope that they’ll have a few days where they won’t run into people or have people chase them. And they adapt pretty quickly. I always liken it to, if you took me and put me in the middle of China or somewhere, I’d be afraid of everything. I wouldn’t know what was safe or my location, so I think they are much more leery because they’ve been safe in here and they know nobody goes in.

B: How many folks do this kind of thing?

There are not a lot of bear rehabbers. Oddly enough Idaho has three others who will do bear rehab. That is really unusual. You can’t usually find one person in any state. But there are a lot of wildlife rehabilitators around, and most of them -- unless you have a center that is supported by the community – most of them are individuals doing it at their homes, paying for it out of their pockets with their own jobs or whatever.

B: How do you measure success in something like this?

Rehabbers carry a sedated bear back to its holding pen.S: I see confident, well-adjusted healthy bears and that’s all I need to see. I know that they are able to take care of themselves, and I know they will do fine. That doesn’t mean they won’t get killed during hunting season, or they won’t face droughts or fires or all of the other things the bear in the wild faces. I think they are a little more prepared to deal with it. They’re more confident, more knowing of who they are, but they still face the same things, and I feel very strongly that that’s what we can do for them.

You know, in the very beginning when I started the program I used to get really upset. I’d go out in the enclosure and there would be no bears, and I’d get all upset and I thought this isn’t doing me any good so I began to realize that there are memories, the video is right here plus the physical video I’ve got. So I can review it anytime I want. I can just say, hey, remember that day when - . And you kind of shut that door. You have to because they’re no longer your responsibility. They are their own responsibility. They take charge of their own lives, and you have no control over what happens.

I wish I could guarantee them thirty years of life. I can’t. So once that door opens and they are released, my door shuts. People say “don’t you get attached, and isn’t it hard when you let them go?” I don’t let them go. They are always meant to go, and frankly with bears you are ready for them to go. There is just no doubt about it.