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A rude awakening for mama bear

Washington Post

SWANTON, Md. -- The experts say you’re not supposed to anthropomorphize anymore, but you can’t help wondering what Bear No. 391 thought about the whole weird event.

There she is, hibernating in the brush pile behind Bill Dean’s summer house on Deep Creek Lake, nestling with her four nursing cubs, snoozing peacefully, when suddenly Harry Spiker shows up with eight colleagues and a tranquilizer dart gun.

Bear 391 opens her sleepy eyes and stares at Spiker, the Black Bear Project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who spikes her with a dart. She lies there for a few minutes, then stumbles to her feet and lumbers drunkenly toward the lake.

“She’s left the den,” Spiker says into his two-way radio.

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Hearing that, a colleague says, “Jaimi, can you get Kender into the truck?”

Jaimi Dean, 35, hustles Kender Poole, her 4-year-old daughter, into a pickup for safekeeping. They’ve come to Grandpa’s summer house to see bears, not get eaten by one.

A second dart is shot into Bear 391’s shoulder, but she keeps going, stumbling downhill toward the water.

“She’s down by the lake,” Spiker says into his radio.

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Spiker and Bear 391 go back a long way.

They first met in August 2001. A woman living near Deep Creek Lake, in northwest Maryland, reported that a bear had broken into her screened-in porch and stolen a 50-pound box of baking chocolate that had been earmarked for making candy.

Spiker set up a bear trap -- a big round metal pipe baited with beef fat and molasses and equipped with a trapdoor -- and three days later found a bear in it. Spiker zapped her with a tranquilizer dart, tagged her ears with metal rings bearing the number 391, tattooed her lip with the same number, weighed her -- she was 168 pounds -- and fitted her with a radio collar.

When Bear 391 emerged from her drug-induced stupor that day, Spiker shot pepper spray into her face, then opened the trap. As she scrambled out, he blasted her in the behind with rubber buckshot and set off firecrackers. It was “aversive conditioning” therapy designed to discourage her from future burglaries and chocolate thefts.

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“Basically,” Spiker says, “the idea is to give ‘em a real bad experience so they don’t repeat the behavior.”

It worked. Bear 391 has never been busted again.

Since then, Spiker, 35, has monitored 391’s life via the transmitter around her neck. She’s one of five Maryland bears now wearing radios, part of a 16-year-old state program designed to learn more about the migratory and reproductive habits of Maryland’s black bears. The bear population, which dwindled to about a dozen in 1956 after decades of unregulated timber cutting, has risen steadily since the 1970s. Now, Striker says, the state has about 400 bears, most in the mountains of the western panhandle, although some have wandered into the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, more than 100 miles east of here.

The radio program has taught Spiker much about Maryland’s bears. They tend to live their lives within 15 square miles of their birthplace. They seem to prefer wet, mountainous areas, particularly thickets of rhododendron. And they’ll hibernate almost anywhere -- in brush piles or rock piles or even just lying on open ground.

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Last month, Spiker followed the signal from 391’s radio transmitter and found her burrowed deep into a pile of stumps, logs and brush behind Dean’s summer house. He couldn’t see her -- she was hibernating beneath 4 feet of snow -- but he could hear the distinctive squeaks and squeals of nursing cubs. “They sound like kittens on steroids,” he says.

Cubs normally live with their mother for about 1 1/2 years, then she sends them away, finds a male to mate with and starts the process all over again.

As Spiker listened to the cubs squealing under the snow in February, he decided to return in March to count and weigh the cubs and tag their ears. He’d also give their mother a new radio transmitter to replace the old one, which works only for a couple of years.

But when Spiker arrived with his team and his dart gun on March 21, Bear 391 wasn’t pleased with the plan.

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The bear has headed for the lake, but the second dart does the trick. Bear 391 slumps to the ground, stoned out of her mind.

“We got her down,” Spiker says over the radio. “We need some help carrying her up the hill.”

Spiker’s colleagues hustle down with a metal stretcher. Gently, they lift 391 onto it and six of them carry her back to the den, looking like pallbearers. One carries a 12-gauge shotgun, just in case the bear attacks anyone.

Now Bear 391 is passed out like a frat boy after a kegger. Spiker and two veterinarians kneel to weigh and measure her: She’s 228 pounds and 63 inches from the tip of her nose to the end of her tail, about average for a bear sow. They take her temperature with a rectal thermometer: 98.4 degrees. That too is about average during hibernation. In the summer, her temperature will rise to about 100 degrees. They attach a pulse oximeter to her tongue to measure her blood-oxygen level, which indicates how she’s faring under the anesthetic. She’s fine.

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Meanwhile, Bob Beyer, one of Spiker’s department colleagues, climbs into the brush pile and reaches deep into 391’s den. He comes out with a little black cub in each hand. He passes them to a colleague, then reaches back into the den and comes out with two more cubs. He holds them by the scruff of the neck and they squawk a protest, teeth and claws bared.

“Oh, Kender, did you see the baby!” Dean says in that squeaky tone that the presence of cuteness sometimes inspires in the human voice. “Look at the bayyy-beee!”

The team weighs and measures the cubs: three females and a male, all 5 to 7 pounds.

Soon the cubs are passed around, so everybody can give them a hug. I clutch one to my chest and it nuzzles my neck with its little black nose. It feels like a teddy bear and smells like a dog. It’s cute as a baby -- cuter than some, truth be told, although I wouldn’t want to mention any names.

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A Department of Natural Resources guy walks over, armed with what looks like pliers. He puts them on the cub’s ear and squeezes, leaving a thick metal ring. The cub squeals. He does the same thing to the other ear. Now this cute little teddy bear looks like a cute little punk teddy bear.

Spiker and the vets are still working on Bear 391. They take a blood sample, then strap a new radio collar around her neck. Noticing a cut near her shoulder, they give her a shot of penicillin to prevent infection.

“She’s beginning to blink a little,” says vet Cindy Driscoll.

That means the tranquilizer is starting to wear off. It’s time to put these bears back in their den. The DNR pallbearers carry 391 back to the brush pile and Spiker eases her into her den. He paints her nose with Vicks VapoRub, which obscures the smell of humans. If 391 senses that humans have messed with her young, she might abandon them -- or kill them.

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Spiker’s colleagues smear Vicks all over the cubs, then Spiker lays them atop their mama. When they’re nestling comfortably, he says, “OK, guys, let’s go,” and everyone scrambles to get away before 391 wakes up.

The next day, Spiker checks on the bears. He finds 391 and her cubs sitting outside the den, basking in the spring sunshine. Hibernation is slowly ending, and within a couple of weeks, 391 will lead her cubs off into the woods and they’ll probably never return to this den. In a year, Spiker will check the area again, and he usually finds at least half the cubs still alive.

“She’s a very healthy bear,” Spiker says. “You can tell by her robust body size -- 228 pounds -- and four good-looking kids.”

Still, you can’t help wondering what Bear 391 thought about the whole weird event. Her encounters with humans have involved chocolate, fireworks, guns and heavy narcotics. But that would be anthropomorphizing, and the experts say we’re not allowed to do that anymore.

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