Lost Bears and Missing Pieces

Harry Drabik

On one of the rainy days last week I left my place and got onto the little traveled county road when I saw a bear cub wobble from mid-road to side where it stopped. The wet and bedraggled cub was a novelty not only for being seen at all but for then standing relatively wide open instead of running like a black streak. I drove slowly by the animal not more than six or seven feet from the side of my truck and thought it strange behavior for a bear. But in the rain and cold a very young cub might not yet know about fleeing from dangers and that mama bear wasn’t near enough to send the snort that would normally send a cub up a tree faster than my monkey boy cousin was able to get in trouble if his mother shifted her gaze away for a split second. (I admired his dash but was uninterested in the price he ultimately paid being dressed down in public.)

In any event, I went by the wet cub and thought that was the end of that. It had been a very long time since I’d last seen any bear cubs; usually somewhat older and either moving like a flash or safe up as high in a tree as they could get. I never expected a second go with presumably the same cub at the same location a full day later. That was unusual indeed, as was the animal’s slow movement shambling off the road for me to pass. It seemed most unlikely a normal and healthy bear cub would be the same place and act the same way two days running. With Highway 61 not more than two hundred feet away I was glad the cub was on the little used county road and not nearer the state highway.

But what to do? The cub’s location, behavior, and the absence of the female suggested the cub might be on its own. With the highway so near the mother bear could have been hit and injured but managed to crawl off. A cub will try to nurse from a dead sow, but that lasts only so long, and without the female to teach behavior and survival tactics the odds are not good a little one will make it going solo. It is just not likely. But anyway, I went to the DNR office to report the cub in case there was any interest or reason to keep track. The instinct, and it is a good one, many readers will have would be to do something to help the cub make it. We’d like to help, but a cub that size and weak condition would probably need to be bottle fed and doing so is not for the faint of resolve not to mention the resulting bear having an un-bearlike imprint on humans. Is it sad to imagine the cub dying of starvation and neglect? Yes it is. But there are consequences when we intervene, so difficult as it may be the best thing may be to do nothing and let nature take its course. I’d certainly bet the cub’s odds were slim, but who knows? The mother bear may have been around and all would turn out OK, or it might already have been too late to effect a recovery, or the result might be a non-wild bear.

Some of you may know of the recent moose rescue up the Gunflint. It made the news in the Twin Cities as a feel good wildlife story has loads of popular appeal. As humans we like to feel good about our actions having a positive effect. Saving a moose is good. We applaud and are happily gratified, but a person can reasonably ask whether the animal in question was really saved or was instead subjected to a more protracted death process. Feeling good about the rescue largely leans on imagining a successful outcome rather than the equally imaginable expiration due to shock and unseen injury. In other words the take we put on a thing depends on filling in the missing pieces to suit our point of view or image of how we’d like things to do.

I think the general rule for wildlife is for people to interfere as little as possible and in most cases to leave the animal where it is. To do nothing may go against the heart strings, but I doubt a pound of bacon and honey was going to help the cub. When I was ten I had a brief career back in Chicago rescuing baby birds. This is to say I took assorted hopeless cases home where they died and were later buried in shoe boxes. One starling and a sparrow made it, meaning they eventually flew off after being fatted on worms I hunted day and night. The compassionate urge to assume the human burden must be fairly strong if a ten year old will do it. This urge is also strong in other areas where instead of deciding a cub is an orphan we conclude a person is a refugee as we don the mantle of rescuer.

Is humility that fuels the save-a-life, save-the-planet inclination or is it arrogance? Is our humanity so all-wise and all-knowing that we deserve to be god-like in dispensing justice and life at our discretion and some might say pleasure? It might seem sensible to assign a bear cub zero responsibility for its fate, but is the same true of a refugee and is it not damned demeaning to treat others like helpless critters existing so we can rescue them and assume our lofty burden?