Abandoned bear cubs found in washroom will return to Banff National Park this spring

One year after they were discovered in a roadside washroom, three abandoned black bear cubs are preparing to return to Banff National Park.

The three female cubs mystified Parks officials when they were found by a motorist on April 1, 2017. After an exhaustive search for their mother yielded no results, they were sent to the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Muskoka, Ont., for rehabilitation.

This week, they emerged from hibernation looking healthy and ready for a return to Banff later this spring, said Howard Smith, the sanctuary’s managing director.  

“They’re in pretty good shape, pretty roly-poly really,” he told the Homestretch on Thursday.

Staff checked on the bears last week for the first time since January, said Smith. They were awake but not yet ready to leave the comfort of their den.

“But the day before yesterday they actually ventured out and were wandering around in the snow, so we have begun a gentle feeding program,” he said.

When they arrived at the sanctuary a year ago the bears were about four months old and weighed just six pounds each, said Smith. They now weigh more than 100 pounds each and have had as little interaction with humans as possible.

The bears were initially bottle fed by a staff member wearing a gown covered in bear scent and a mask, said Howard Smith, managing director of the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. ‘We’re doing everything we can to minimize any sort of human activity.’ (Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary)

“Initially of course when they’re small they had to be bottle fed on formula,” he said. “We had one individual primarily who was responsible and she wore a gown that was actually covered in bear scent and wore a mask. We’re doing everything we can to minimize any sort of human activity.

“Once that phase was over and they were gradually brought in to eating harder food, we moved them out to our large isolated enclosure. We have 470 acres, it’s all sort of wild bush country.”

Food was thrown into the enclosure from the outside to further reduce the bears’ exposure to people. Feeding was stopped in December to allow the bears to enter hibernation, Smith said.

Odds are good

Now that they’re awake, the bears will be prepped to return to Banff later this spring, around mid-June. Smith said the odds for survival are good.

“Research on rehabbed bears all over the world has shown they respond fairly well when released in suitable habitat, in suitable food conditions,” he said.

“The park will be picking a spot that’s isolated and has the best possible sources of food and habitat so their chances of survival will be maximized.”

When they’re ready, the bears will be transported by air in metal crates — the same way as the pandas that are now in residence at the Calgary Zoo.

Smith said his sanctuary has hosted about 50 bears in the last decade, but none from as far afield as Alberta. This province banned bear rehabilitation in 2010, however that policy has since been reviewed.

The provincial government has said it plans to announce new rules soon.

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