TOFINO, B.C. — A British Columbia wildlife refuge says staff are upset and shocked after a bear cub that was rescued near his mother's dead body this spring died unexpectedly in his enclosure.
The bear named Malcolm was asphyxiated after getting his head stuck in a small rope handle attached to a plastic buoy, the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre says in a statement on Monday.
"In the morning of his death, he was routinely observed on the cameras playing contentedly on the large tree stumps that had been provided in his cage. In the mid-afternoon, animal care staff were at the pre-release building and opened the food hatch to check on the Malcolm's activities," the centre says.
"At that time the cub was seen to be immobile and on the ground beside one of the tree stumps. Staff immediately entered the enclosure recognizing that there was a serious problem. ... There were no signs of a struggle and we suspect he got his head through the loop and then very quickly asphyxiated."
There has been a buoy suspended by a chain from a tree stump in Malcolm's enclosure since he was first introduced, it says. The buoys have been a common source of enrichment for bears and there have never been any hints of injuries or mishaps, it adds.
"We feel that it represents a very unfortunate accident involving an extremely rare set of circumstances. Caring for these special animals is an emotionally intense experi
ence and we feel this loss profoundly. However, we will learn from this and be better at what we do," it says.
Founder and operations manager Robin Campbell said in an interview that the centre has now removed the ropes attached to the buoys from all enclosures. He said in 20 years there had never been an incident like this.
"It's just a terrible, terrible thing," he said.
The cub was about eight to 12 weeks old and extremely malnourished when it was discovered in May lying on its mother's carcass in Tofino, B.C.
"There was a lot of drama in saving it," Campbell said. "Every little step of the way was like a little miracle. So when he finally turned into this wild bear and he was in his home stretch, all he had to do was go into hibernation and then next summer he would have been released."
The centre's statement says despite some initial health problems associated with emaciation and hypoglycemia, the bear had shown good physical and behavioural progress while in care. He was sedated and examined on Oct. 18 and found to be healthy and in very good body condition, so he was moved to a pre-release enclosure.
The enclosure affords lots of space and enrichment and less contact with people, but allows for good CCTV monitoring from several angles, the centre says.
Jennifer Steven and her husband John Forde, co-owners of the Whale Centre in Tofino, spotted the tiny cub in Ross Pass in May and rescued it by scooping it into a dog kennel.
Steven said Monday she was "devastated" by the bear's death but she hoped people would not blame the wildlife refuge.
"It's sad because so much was put into the effort to save the bear. Accidents happen in life and there's definitely no hard feelings against the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre. They did so much to save that cub," she said.
She and her husband visited the cub a few times at the wildlife refuge and he appeared to be doing great, she said. The refuge also sent them videos showing his growth into a "very large" bear, she said.
There are many animals that would die without the centre, Steven said, and she urged people to support it.
"They did the best that they could and accidents happen. We always learn from accidents like this, and if they can be prevented, great," she said.
"I hope everyone can make a small donation to them because he's not the only bear there, he's not the only animal there, and they do such a good job."