THREE BEARS ARE ACTUALLY REAL
My pulse was beating double-time. First, I had followed Andrew Bridges and his team of experts up the side of what seemed to be a thousand feet of a mountain with patches of snow in the shady spots, and then climbed halfway up a large oak tree. Second, the tree was surrounded by people with rifles, pistols, and chainsaws. And, perhaps most importantly, I was staring down into the hollow tree at an enormous black bear and her cubs.
The exertion of the climb and the thrill of seeing my first mother bear up close were ample cause for an accelerated heartbeat. The armed personnel at the base of the tree added to my exhilaration because of the role they played in dealing with the bears.
Andrew is a graduate student at Virginia Tech completing his doctoral research on black bears as part of the Cooperative Alleghany Bear Study. The study is "cooperative" because a diversity of government agencies are involved with the university in trying to understand the biology and behavior of black bears. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is particularly interested in the findings because bears are a game species in the state. The study determines demographic patterns of bears by examining birth and mortality rates as well as mating behavior of bears in natural forests of the region.
Andrew heads a team of five who put on an amazing performance. I have never seen a better executed process for studying an animal species. The steps leading to my viewing the bear from above included the team's locating the mother bear in the hollow tree using radio-telemetry (she had been outfitted the previous year with a collar and radio-transmitter) and knowing she was presumably with one or more cubs. She had three. For some reason I thought bears had one or two cubs, but it turns out that three is not abnormal, and Andrew has seen as many as four cubs in a litter.
Andrew's group looked like a SWAT team when they surrounded the tree as he climbed to the opening at the top. He carried a pistol with a tranquilizer dart to put the mother into a deep sleep. One person held a pistol and another trained a rifle on the opening, both with tranquilizer darts, in case the mother decided to come out of the opening while Andrew was climbing the tree. But Andrew successfully reached the opening, and I heard the plonk of the dart gun as he fired. The mother bear was soon asleep. This is when I climbed the tree, after Andrew had done the dangerous part. I saw only a sleeping bear, but I was still impressed.
In the next step, the team used the chainsaw to cut open a footwide square in the side of the tree just above the sleeping mother. Andrew leaned inside the tree and pulled out the first of the cubs, which he handed to me. What a thrill! It was like holding a five-pound puppy with the most enormous claws I have ever seen. The cubs, which were still nursing, did not bite. All I had to do to calm down a cub was nestle it close to my body. I have a photo of me cuddling all three of the baby bears, which are terminally cute creatures.
Over the next thirty minutes, the team took numerous measurements, sprayed each cub with scent killer to remove the human smell, and returned them to their mother inside the tree. The female was then given an injection so the tranquilizer effect would wear off within a few minutes. The square that had been cut from the tree was nailed and glued back in place. The crew gathered up the climbing ropes, chainsaw, guns, and other materials and we headed back down the mountain.
Much effort, special training, and imagination go into all research,
and we often take for granted how much scientists actually have learned
about animals and plants throughout the world. Studying bears up close
also requires some extra adrenalin. In the future I will be much more
impressed with bear facts, knowing that somebody like Andrew Bridges
probably had to stare down a mother bear to get some of the data.