SANTA FE, N.M. — When two orphaned bear cubs arrived in the care of a New Mexico veterinarian in mid-June, they were dehydrated and weighed little more than human infants, at 8 and 12 pounds.
The small bears had been plucked from treetops in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, where they had been wandering alone for several days after their mother was killed by state wildlife officers because she had mauled a marathon runner and, under a state regulation, had to be tested for rabies.
The motherless cubs likely would have died in the wild.
Instead, Dr. Kathleen Ramsay, owner of the Cottonwood Veterinary Clinic and a longtime wildlife rehabilitator, has been caring for the cubs, named Valley Girl and Cowboy, for the last three months at an undisclosed location, where she is preparing them for release back into the wild in late October or November, when the height of hunting season has passed.
“The bears are doing absolutely fantastic, (and) gaining tremendous amounts of weight,” Ramsay said in a recent interview with The New Mexican (http://bit.ly/2cXwUya). “We are doing everything we can to mimic everything they will be doing in the wild.”
Ramsay doesn’t usually allow visitors at her private rehabilitation site, but she has released images of the thriving bears in their temporary habitat: a tall, chain-link cage with a pool, climbable logs and a tire swing. Several photos posted on the website of the Land of Enchantment Wildlife Foundation, which helps fund wildlife rehabilitation projects, shows the small black bears — cinnamon-brown despite their name — playing together or standing on their hind legs, ears cocked back and arms outstretched.
Other images at the site, www.landofenchantment.org, show a bear cub reclining inside an oblong trough and resting, splay-legged, over a tree trunk.
Ramsay, a native New Mexican, has worked with bear cubs for nearly 30 years, and in that time has fostered more than 600 cubs, she said. The numbers of abandoned cubs in the state can vary drastically each year, often depending on the climate. Last year, she had just one cub. In 2011, the “worst year,” she said, she had nearly 60 abandoned cubs in a single summer. She said, “That was a nightmare.”
That year, drought, wildfire and a late freeze killed the fall acorn crop. As bears migrated across the state searching for food, many were struck by cars or starved, leaving their cubs behind.
The Valles Calderas cubs are among a pack of six Ramsay has this year. Four others — Aubrey, Opal, Clark and Judy — arrived in separate pairs in July, after their mothers were shot by Otero County landowners, who said the bears had threatened or attacked their dogs.
All of the cubs started on milk formula when they entered Ramsay’s care. But now, their weight has nearly quadrupled, thanks to the more than 45 pounds of vegetables, fruit and meal worms they each consume in a given week. Ramsay also hides acorns in their habitats to teach them how to harvest food once they are released.
The cost of this care, which takes nearly three hours a day, is $6,000 per cub.
Ramsay said she steadfastly avoids contact with the bear cubs during the rehabilitation process.
“They really have a fear of people, and that’s the way we want to keep it,” she said. “The next time the bears are going to be handled or touched is the day they are going to get turned loose.”
The less human contact they have, the better the bears fare in the wild. But Ramsay also is trying to help them avoid meeting the same fate as their mothers.
The mother of the two Valles Caldera cubs mauled a Los Alamos woman, Karen Williams, while she was running in an annual marathon June 18 in the Jemez Mountains preserve. The woman’s footfalls had startled the nearby cubs, triggering the mother’s attack. Following a 1979 state Health Department regulation that mandates rabies testing for any animal that attacks a human, wildlife officials killed the bear. Tests for the disease — which were negative — required brain samples.
The bear’s death caused an outcry from people who opposed the practice, including Williams, who said the animal showed no sign of rabies and was acting aggressively to protect her young. Some people have called for a change in the rule that requires rabies testing.
But Garrett VeneKlasen, director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said he supports the rule. “Rabies is a horrible, horrible disease,” he said.
When Ramsay’s cubs are released, they will be wearing radio collars so officials from the state Game and Fish Department can track them. It will take them about two weeks to den, Ramsay said, and then they’ll hibernate until spring. She is confident they will survive.
In 2001, Game and Fish conducted a study on abandoned cubs released back into the wild, and out of 38 cubs, all but one survived. VeneKlasen said the biggest threat to the young cubs will be territorial male bears.
For Ramsay, the ability to restore the health of an animal — any animal — and return it to the wild is what motivates her work.
“Wildlife rehabilitation has been a love of my life,” Ramsay said. “Any animal deserves a second chance of being able to go free in the wild again.”
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com