Orphaned bear cubs get a second chance

DNR uses vapor rub to introduce cubs to surrogate mother

CHASE TWP. — Aided by cold medicine, three black bear cubs found in Chase Township were placed with a surrogate family following their mother’s death last month.

On April 27, Michigan Department of Natural Resources staff and staff from two local tree service companies removed the orphaned cubs from a Chase Township tree, and coated them with Vicks VapoRub topical ointment to reintroduce the cubs to a surrogate mother and her two cubs.

DNR staff were first notified on April 26 that a sow — a female bear — was near U.S.-10 and her cubs were in a nearby tree, said Katie Keen, DNR wildlife technician. The DNR assumes the sow was hit by a vehicle sometime in the night between April 26 and 27. The driver would not be required to report that accident, Keen said, but the DNR was able to confirm the sow’s death.

Although the DNR isn’t certain what took place, it is possible the sow was frightened by the traffic on U.S.-10, which caused her to tree her cubs.

“It’s a bear’s natural instinct, if they feel there is danger, to tree her cubs,” Keen said. “That’s where they are safest, up in a tree, and then she would kind of defend at the base.”

Since bear cubs are usually born in January or February, the several-month-old orphaned cubs needed a mother to continue nursing. In cases like this, the DNR uses its surrogate sow program to place orphaned cubs with other sows.

The DNR places tracking collars on sows and visits them annually. By doing so, they are able to keep track of how many cubs sows have each year. The DNR was aware of a sow in a nearby county

who only had two cubs. Based on reports, studies and images caught on trail cameras, the DNR knew black bears in the northern Lower Peninsula were capable of caring for five cubs, so they chose the nearby sow as the surrogate mother.

“The best situation for all wild animals is to keep them in the wild,” Keen said.

To get the cubs out of the tree, the DNR called in Malcolm Vandentoorn, of Alpine Tree Service, and Ronald Kailing, of Tree Inc. Although the cubs continued to climb higher as the tree climbers ascended, they were finally able to reach the cubs and bring them down, Keen said.

Once out of the tree, the cubs were covered with Vicks VapoRub, a method used to reintroduce cubs in the surrogate sow program. Once the surrogate sow encounters the new cubs, the ointment will mask any other odors on the cubs and she will instinctively lick the sticky substance off their fur, hopefully bonding them in the process.

“The cubs would have had all sort of scents on them,” Keen said. “They were brought down by tree climbers, they were handled by humans, so the idea was to mask any foreign scent. Then as she licked them, she is covering them with her own scent.”

The DNR then used equipment to locate the surrogate mother, who treed her cubs as they approached, which allowed the DNR to place the orphaned cubs in the tree with her two cubs to complete the surrogacy.

“(The surrogate sow) never got too far away; she kept an eye on everything that was going on,” Keen said laughingly.

According to Keen, the orphaned cubs will stay with the surrogate sow the rest of the year, den with her this winter and then go out on their own next March.