Joseph Brean | April 18, 2017
On April Fools Day, when motorists discovered three ridiculously cute, teddy-sized, two-month-old black bear cubs inside a locked roadside washroom in Banff National Park, it must have seemed like some kind of prank.
April 1 has another significance in Alberta, however. It marks the start of the spring bear hunt. The cubs could have separated from their mother in any number of natural ways. But given that they were far too small to open a bathroom door on their own, and Parks Canada rangers were unable to find the mother bear or her body after a wide two-day search, it appears someone illegally shot a nursing sow, and rather than leave her cubs to starve, instead locked them somewhere they were sure to be found — like a wilderness version of leaving a baby on the church steps.
Today these orphan cubs are safe and sound, thousands of kilometres from home in an Ontario sanctuary, after a gruelling cross-continent journey by road and air, no thanks to the governments of Alberta and British Columbia, both of which threw up regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles to Parks Canada’s efforts to save them.
The stakes were high in this clash of federal and provincial authorities, for the bears at least. Alberta likely would have euthanized them, as they have dozens of other orphaned black bears, in accordance with a 2010 law prohibiting the rehabilitation of black bears without special permission. That law was motivated by fears that rescued bears become pests by being habituated to humans, and are poorly equipped to survive in the wild. There is also already a high black bear population. Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife authority refused to answer questions on Tuesday.
That law is why no sanctuary in Alberta could take them, but the province also refused to approve their export through the Calgary airport, which is how a B.C. sanctuary became briefly involved and offered to take them, but British Columbia only permits rehabilitation of its own wildlife, and would not grant a permit.
The last option would have been a zoo, according to Parks Canada, but Ontario has more flexible rules, and permits black bear rehabilitation so long as they are released back into the same environment.
So on Easter weekend, Parks Canada staff drove the bears westward through the mountains to Kelowna, B.C., where they caught a plane to Toronto, and were met by Howard Smith, who runs Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary on 470 acres in Rosseau, in Ontario’s cottage country. He said they showed up thirsty.
Unofficially named Banff, Jasper and Yoho, after the national parks, the three female cubs are thriving, rough-housing with each other, and feeding on a specially designed formula they drink from bottles, supplemented with a mush, Smith said. They are all about six or seven pounds now, and were born probably in late January or early February.
They are being cared for by Jan Kingshott, Aspen Valley’s director of animal care, who wears a gown that has been immersed in bear scent for many days, and a surgical mask that prevents the cubs from seeing her face. This hands-off approach is to prevent the cubs becoming accustomed to humans.
They are living inside in a nursery, but will soon move to an enclosure with outside space, and eventually into a larger fenced section of forest, where they can learn to climb and forage, and even interact with wild bears through the fence.
Smith expects them to learn the ways of the wild quickly, simply by following their own instinct to “act as bears.”
They are expected to be released this time next year, shipped by Parks Canada back to their home environment in Banff.
They will be “subject to all the rigours of nature like anyone else, but at least they have a chance,” Smith said.