In response: Hope's plot twist provides new lessons
We at the North American Bear Center welcome the chance to respond to Sam Cook's June 4 column, "Bear obsession takes us down a murky path," and the June 6 News Tribune story, "Rogers' research draws fame, foes."...
We at the North American Bear Center welcome the chance to respond to Sam Cook's June 4 column, "Bear obsession takes us down a murky path," and the June 6 News Tribune story, "Rogers' research draws fame, foes."
This winter, a webcam provided unprecedented research information on how a wild black bear gives birth and cares for her young in a den. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be the biggest educational outreach we've ever done. We could hardly believe it when tens of thousands logged on to the Den Cam. For the next several months, they and we watched and learned together. In an Internet first, we organized Den Cam viewers to record standardized data 24/7. Viewers on the other side of the world covered the wee hours. The result was reams of data.
Eventually, we learned viewers included teachers, classrooms, troops overseas, families, hunters, and biologists around the world. Thousands wrote that watching these wild creatures changed their lives and their views of bears. Many wrote they no longer were afraid to vacation in bear country.
We work under two nonprofit organizations. Operational money for research (under the Wildlife Research Institute) comes from courses for wildlife professionals, teachers, hunters and others. Support for education (under the North American Bear Center) comes from admission fees, sales, and donations. We are not supported by tax dollars. Most of us work as volunteers. None of us receive benefits. The staffs of both organizations work together as a "miracle team" to make the research and the bear center all they can be. It is a labor of love, and it shows.
Viewers at bear.org saw the values of the Den Cam to science and education and sent thousands of heartfelt notes of thanks as well as donations, all unexpected. We felt humbled. We answered questions in daily updates, adding our own heartfelt thanks at the end. The donations all went to reduce the bear center's $700,000 debt.
To quell a misconception, none of the donations go to me. I am an unpaid volunteer at the bear center. At the Wildlife Research Institute, I am paid less than half what agency biologists make.
Viewers asked for memorabilia of mother-bear Lily and her cub Hope. The bear center hired staff from the local community, gratefully gave viewers what they wanted and used the profits to upgrade the bear center's exhibits and website.
Viewers put their voting power behind Ely in a contest to name "America's coolest small town." Tiny Ely (population 3,724) won with 118,899 votes. Hundreds of Lily's 98,000 followers then scheduled vacations to shop, eat and use outfitters in the region.
Aside from the regional economic benefits, the main beneficiaries of this research and education are bears. The more people know about bears, the more willing they are to coexist with them. This includes black bears that live among us and endangered bears of other countries. The state bear biologist is asking that some of the donations be directed to his bear research projects.
Through it all, we remained true to our research ethics. Our usual approach of simple observational science has ranked our research one of the four major studies of large mammals in the world. It enabled us to senior-author more peer-reviewed scientific papers on black bears than anyone in the world.
Nevertheless, a couple years ago we were officially criticized for not going beyond observation. We were criticized for not delving into experimentation and hypothesis-testing like most researchers do. Now, the separation of Lily and Hope has not only offered us that opportunity but required us to do exactly that to better understand their behavior -- and we are criticized for it. Unfortunately, we can't please all the people all the time.
Many people urged us to place Hope in a rehab facility after she was abandoned. Others urged us to give Hope a home at the bear center. If we were influenced by money, we would have sought permission to put her in the bear center to draw big crowds. But we do research to fill unknowns in scientific literature, using our 44 years of research experience. New situations sometimes require new methods to learn new things. We left Hope in the wild and are temporarily supplementing her diet. The decision to do that was easy. It was the best for science and Hope. There is so much more to learn from her alive. If Hope had died, we would have learned only what we already knew -- that orphaned cubs of that age can die.
Alive, Hope is helping us understand separation. Did her mother intentionally leave her? Would Lily ignore Hope if she saw her? We got them together and saw the most touching display of animal emotion I have ever seen. They spent the next five days nursing and playing together.
All that ended, though, when Lily saw her own mother, fled, and didn't return. Many suggested that Hope might be sick -- that if Hope is sick, Lily might not want to take care of her. After five days of separation and five days of reduced lactation by Lily, Hope was weakened, but was that because of sickness or just malnutrition? We gave her formula, grapes, nuts and mealworms. She thrived and shows no sign of sickness. With Hope on her own, what should we have done?
Typically, orphans too young to survive are placed in captivity and fed for a year. Is that necessary? Or might orphans learn wild ways better if they are left in the wild with temporary supplements until they can eat wild foods? That's what we are testing now. Hope's life should provide the answer. So far, it seems to be working. She is already eating the same wild foods other cubs eat. She is foraging up to one and a quarter miles away from the feeding site. On some days, she does not return. She is alert to danger, is scent-marking her area, and is growing.
Hope's life as an orphan in the wild will answer many scientific questions about nature-vs.-nurture regarding diet, making dens, developing social relations, and establishing a territory.
Or a totally different scenario is possible: Lily and Hope could re-unite, hibernate together, and provide an explanation for the mixed-age litters that are reported. Lily will likely have cubs this winter.
Hope's huge following in classrooms and the public put us under unusual scrutiny. She is an educational ambassador to millions. In the wild, she can contribute much to science, education, and the welfare of bears. Did we do the right thing by giving her a temporary hand so she could remain in the wild? Her life will provide the answer.
Lynn Rogers is a wildlife research biologist and the principal biologist at Wildlife Research Institute in Ely. He has been studying bears for 44 years and was a founder of the North American Bear Center in Ely.