By Reid Eccles
A computer monitor flips between different angles on what might be a forest floor, if it weren’t for the cement blocks enclosing it. There are logs, a pool of water, a wooden den. The screen flips again and a groggy black bear stands up, its motion having tripped the camera’s sensors. This video feed is the only interaction humans are allowed with these bears at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington, BC. Even when workers do have to enter the bear enclosures, no outside clothes are permitted and they wear hunting sprays to mask their scents.
The cub and its sibling, who were orphaned in an incident that drew international attention, have been growing quickly at the Centre, where they were brought in July. Their mother was euthanized after repeatedly raiding a freezer in a mobile home near Port Hardy, BC, but north island conservation officer Bryce Casavant refused orders to put the cubs down as well. He was suspended by the BC Conservation Officer Service (COS), but not before having the cubs checked by a veterinarian, and then dropping them off at the refuge. Now one-year old and weighing over 45 kg., Jordan and Athena, as they were named, were recently moved from an interim complex to the Centre’s largest care facility, where they interact with six other cubs. They are scheduled for reintroduction into the wild in late summer.
Wildlife Manager Julie Mackey says the cubs have assimilated excellently into their current environment. “They’re a part of the group,” she notes. “At this point I couldn’t tell them apart without checking their ear tags.”
Bears who have become used to eating human food and garbage cannot be rehabilitated, which is why their mother was euthanized, but Casavant made the decision to save the cubs after determining that they had not become similarly habituated. Now they spend their days playing and foraging in their enclosure, which is designed to simulate the conditions, including diet, to which they will eventually return. By the time the animals are released, they will have been bulked up past the average size for bears of their age, to give them a better chance at making the transition back to the wild.
Mackey says that in her seven years with the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association, which operates the Centre, at least one cub has been delivered into their care every year. Sometimes their mothers have been killed in a road collision or shot by hunters who mistook them for males. In recent years, poor berry and salmon seasons have forced many into urban areas, where they are more likely to come to harm or be separated from their cubs. This has led to a surplus of “abandoned runts,” says Mackey, unable to bed down for the winter. “Little bears are still up when they shouldn’t be. One year we had 18 cubs. After that, we decided that we needed another bear facility.”
In addition to black bears, the Centre specializes in the care and rehabilitation of raptors (birds of prey). Current residents include a one-eyed owl, a raven that was raised as a pet, several eagles that have been injured by humans, as well as a rare golden eagle. The association works in close relation with other publicly funded wildlife facilities on Vancouver Island, such as the SPCA Wildlife Recovery Centre (Wild ARC) in Victoria, and Pacific Northwest Raptors in Duncan, transferring birds and occasionally non-bear mammals back and forth, depending on the animals’ needs.
The Centre is open seven days a week from nine a.m. to five p.m. Though the bear cubs’ enclosures are not open to the public, they may be viewed on the live-stream. The NIWRA does have one resident black bear, Knut, who was bred in captivity and may be openly viewed in his outdoor habitat — when he’s not hibernating. Resident birds and small mammals are also openly viewable; their pens and compounds spread across the NIWRA’s eight-acre property.
The association also offers guided tours for school groups. “Teaching the next generation to respect wild animals is important,” says Mackey. “All of the animals have a story as to why they are here and a lot of them have human-related reasons, such as vehicle collisions, or people that have raised birds that they shouldn’t have who now can’t hunt on their own. We act as an educational facility for that as well.”
Meanwhile, the conservation officer who saved their lives recently broke his silence to discuss the case. Suspended without pay and transferred out of the COS, Casavant drew support from around the world when British comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted about his situation. A petition to reinstate him quickly drew over 300,000 signatures. He has since received back pay, but his career as a conservation officer has ended.
“The reason why I made that decision had a lot less to do with emotion and a lot more to do with the legal authorities provided to constables and officers,” Casavant told CTV News. “So my decision-making process at the time, there was more of a legal basis to it than there was an emotional basis to it.” He was eventually appointed to a new position with BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and has also been accepted as a doctoral candidate at Royal Roads University in Victoria, to research the social aspects of conflict with wildlife. “I think I’ll be able to do just as much good in my personal life through research and academic furtherance as I would as a CO.”
For its part, the province has told the NIWRA that it must place GPS collars on the bears before releasing them back into the wild, in order to track their movements. “They’re interested in these two and not the other ones,” Mackey told The Vancouver Sun. “I guess because these ones got so much press and media, they want to know. They’re interested in where they go, if they return to a populated area.” Chris Genovali, executive-director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, wonders if government malice was behind the directive. “Our concern is that the two cubs are effectively being marked for death out of some sort of ‘institutional spite’ by the province as a reaction to the bear cubs being initially saved and all the resulting controversy (and bad publicity) the province endured,” he told the Sun.
Greig Bethel, a public affairs officer for the Ministry, says in an e-mail that “Collaring was proposed due to the circumstances that caused the cubs to be brought into the centre against the recommendation of provincial staff.” Mackey says it didn’t feel like a proposal at the time — “The bears had to be collared.” The Centre is not able to keep the bears permanently, so the alternative would be to euthanize them.
The province is also requiring the non-profit NIWRA to pay the $10-12,000 cost of the collars. “They want them collared and we have to pay, so that’s fun,” Mackey told the Sun.
Donations to the organization may be made at niwra.org. Meanwhile, Jordan and Athena, named for members of Casavant’s family, continue to forage and play, blissfully unaware of their celebrity status.