Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A day with the bears (2)

Myself with a live research bear that had been processed and was moments from being put into the culvert trap to come out of the effects of the drugs safely.

In my last entry, “A day with the bears (1) I introduced you to my internship at the NYSDEC main office in Albany. I also shared an amazing day I was allowed to participate in at a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Western, NY.

If you’re new to my blog, please check out the previous entry (and all the others!) to get the back story.

In this entry I’ll explain what “processing” a bear means, and walk through all the steps with pictures taken that day.

Once a bear is chemically immobilized, and it’s deemed safe for DEC staff to enter the enclosure we start to move quickly. The clock immediately starts ticking backwards and we only have about 20-30 minutes to get everything done before the bear becomes mobile again.

The checklist of what needs to be done will vary from handling to handling of the bears. Generally the same things are accomplished each time a bear(s) is handled, which I will detail below.

Black bear with a unique ear
tag used for identification at a distance.
A data sheet is kept with the bears ID which is assigned the first time he is handled. The bear gets a unique set of ear tags that are often colored and are have large numbers so the bear can be identified at a distance. The time of chemical immobilization is noted as well as a temperature of the bear. Which is taken…non-orally. The temperature can indicate if the bear is in any kind of distress. If the temperature spikes or drops, steps can be taken to reverse the effects of certain chemicals and allow the bear to come out of the effects. Heart and breathing rate is also monitored for these same reasons. One time, not this time, I was in charge of listening to the bear’s breathing. There is something about listening to a “sleeping” bear breathing deep and slow that was so intriguing. THAT is the stuff that makes me love my job!
Matt taking down data being called out by others working on the bear.
A tattoo is usually also added to the inside of the bear’s lip. This number is the same as the ear tags, in case the tags get pulled out or fall off. If this bear is handled again for whatever reason in the future, the biologist can look up her number and know “who” she is.

Region 3 Biologist Matt Merchant tattoos the first bear’s lip, as Main office big game technician Matt Walters looks on.
Sometimes a bear is fitted with a collar that allows DEC staff to keep tabs on the bear. Some collars are a bit more “old fashioned” and one has to go out with a receiving device, and look for a signal given off from the collar. Other (much more expensive) collars can output live updates at predetermined intervals. This is neat, because we can plot those GPS points on a map and see where the animal is moving about. These bears though, did not receive collars.

Sometimes also a PIT (passive integrative transponder) tag is inserted into the bear. This is essentially the same thing as having your pet “micro-chipped”. Information is saved on the tag, and can be read with a scanner at a later date. It’s about the size of a large grain of rice, and is inserted with a large gauge needle above the shoulders between the skin and muscle. But we also did not do this, this time.

In the case that age is not known, a premolar tooth is extracted, and age can be read on rings found in a cross section of the tooth. Similar to how you can read the age of a tree. This tooth is not a dominant tooth, and studies have shown little ill effects from this tooth being extracted. Because we knew these bears were yearlings, a tooth did not need to be extracted.

A weight was taken of the bears that day, using a spring weight. We wrapped the bear up in the net, then all lifted and hooked him or her up to the scale. Gravity pulled the bear down and a weight was read. To hoist the bear up, and then to hold the scale took the whole team!

NYSDEC staff taking measurements from a live research bear.
In this case, measurements were also taken of the bear. I don’t recall this happening other times I’ve assisted with bears. Matt and Christie set to taking length and girth of the bear and recording the measurements on the data sheet. Perhaps in the future, these measurements can help staff determine what kind of condition the bear is in, if it’s handled again.

The other team there that day, from Region 5 (Adirondacks) were also taking foot measurements (width and length). I was interested to know why, but didn’t have a chance to listen in and ask questions. They had their own set of bears they were bringing back to the ADKs for release!

At this point, the bear is still immobilized, so entering such a tight space was deemed “safe”. The clock was ticking though, and the biologist had to get him tucked away quickly and the door shut so he could begin work on the other two girl bears.
Once everything was complete, the bear was loaded into the culvert trap on the trailer. The first bear was Brother (who remember weighed 175#). Maneuvering an animal like that in a tight space is hard work! They are completely limp under the effects of the drugs. But eventually he was nestled in there, and we went back to work on the sisters.

One of the first things to
do is to cover the bear’s
eyes to protect them from
light and debris.
You may have noticed in the pictures that the bear’s faces are almost always covered. This is done because under the influence of the drugs, they can not blink. To keep them moist, Jean put an ointment in their eyes, and then we cover them to protect them and keep the light out. This may also help keep the animal calm. Sometimes when you remove one of the senses, an animal will calm right down. And the entire time, we kept our voices low and calm. We strive to make the whole experience the least stressful it possibly can, given the circumstances.

I was able to take a quick tour with Jean of the rest of the facility and get to know her a bit. She is truly an inspirational woman for her care and handling of wild black bears. She is known across our state for the ethic she and her husband hold and maintain while working with these wild animals.
Their respect of the animals challenges me to keep in mind that they ARE wild. While I love a cute animal as much as the rest of us, they are strong, powerful, intelligent, and not to be reckoned with. Practicing good “bear aware” behaviors while living or visiting bear country is something we all must be vigilant to do. Bears inhabit three main zones of NY: the Northern Zone (Adirondacks), Southern Zone (Catskills), and the Western Zone (Allegany and Southern Finger Lakes). More and more of us are finding black bears in places they haven’t lived in decades, but we must adapt to each other to find a healthy balance.

I encourage you, if you are to cross paths with a black bear, to educate yourself on how to potentially avoid that crossing to begin with, or to prevent a repeat meeting, and to safely maneuver out of the situation. I love to photograph wild animals just as much as anyone, but I respect the animals too much to chase them down or lure them in for that perfect shot, which many of us are tempted to do, regardless if it’s a rabbit or bear.

Anyway, the day ended with us hitting the road and heading back. I was dropped off in Albany, and the bears and their “chaperones” kept going to their final destination. I spent the drive home and that night ruminating about this day. I wanted to share this experience with my blog readers, because it was such a great day, and it’s such important work. I got to meet great people, I got to handle my all time favorite animal, and it was a very happy ending for “The Jumbos” who spent that first night on their own. Can you imagine what they got up to that night?!

Here’s my final glimpse at the bears before we parted ways!



  1. What a sweet clip of your final glimpse of the bears.

  2. Sounds like an interesting and rewarding day. I hope those bears are able to adapt and flourish in their new environment. Do older bears like them tend to stay together for a while after being released? Just curious.


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