Picture this: You’re in the New Hampshire woods. There’s a massive pile of apples in front of you. A cluster of black bear cubs are busy chomping away at the fruit.
As the cubs enjoy their snack, they emit an odd, yet affable hum, seemingly in unison.
That’s what writer, producer and wildlife preservationist John Fusco experienced at the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme, N.H. He took a video and posted it on Twitter so others could see and hear the cubs too. Take a look:
Watching this video spurs many questions: What does the bear cubs’ sound mean? What happened to their mothers? And how can cubs like these be protected?
The Kilham Bear Center has taken in this year more than 30 black bear cubs from New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. The number of cubs it accepts each year “really depends on the natural food supplies,” said wildlife rehabilitator and black bear expert Ben Kilham. “This year, there was a drought which caused mothers to go looking for food and getting in trouble.”
Many black bear cubs lose their mothers when they search for food near areas occupied by humans. “There’s an expression up here, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’ Because once they get habituated, it’s a danger to the bear,” Fusco said. Wildlife departments will sometimes euthanize bears that spend too much time searching for food near humans, said Rae Wynn-Grant, a conservation scientist and large carnivore ecologist.
For now, these cubs don’t need to worry about going hungry. Fusco shot the video after delivering apples to the center; others bring more fruit and acorns to help feed the cubs as they grow.
Judging by the sound the bears make as they eat, they appreciate the snack. “That’s a happy sound … a sound of contentment,” Kilham said.
This sound is relatively rare, Wynn-Grant said, as bears are typically quiet. “They’re obviously in a healthy sanctuary … it kind of makes sense that they would be cooing and telling us how great they feel.”
The adorable video attracted attention on Twitter and resulted in donations to the Kilham Bear Center, Fusco said. “It’s raising the love for bears and then that gets people interested in conserving them.”
The cubs will stay at the center until June, when they will be about 18 months old. But after their release, it’s uncertain how many will survive. “An awful lot will be taken in hunting,” Kilham said. At minimum, the released cubs will survive four or five months before hunting season begins. “But then many of them survive years after that,” he explained.
What threats do black bears face?
Hunting isn’t the only reason a mother black bear might not survive to care for her cub. “The biggest threats to black bears specifically are humans,” Wynn-Grant said. “In the places where I study, vehicle collisions are the No. 1 source of mortality.”
Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers can also harm bears by disrupting their hibernation. “It can really jar them awake, scare them and cause them to leave their den. And if they leave the den, there’s no food around them, it’s actually much too cold for them, and they can die,” Wynn-Grant explained. She recommends skiers and snowmobilers avoid off-roading and “stick through preestablished trails and paths, because typically, we find that bears are going to avoid those areas.”
“By nature, bears really want to be far away from people; they are afraid of people,” Wynn-Grant explained. “But at the same time, they’re really, really motivated by food.” She explained that to prepare for hibernation, bears become hyperfocused on consuming calories. “All they care about is getting enough calories in their body by any means necessary.”
This means humans who reside in or visit areas with bears must do a better job concealing the scent of food. “The bears are only trying to survive, and put into a situation where you have an apple pie on your cabin table [with just a] flimsy screen door, a bear is just going to walk right in,” Fusco said.
Keeping food away from bears goes beyond hiding obvious food sources. Throwing away food scraps in an outdoor trash can, keeping a dog’s food bowl on your deck and allowing a hose to leak in your backyard can cause a bear to approach, Wynn-Grant said. And if you’re camping, it’s important to lock away scented items such as toothpaste and deodorant as well as food. “It’s very easy to coexist with bears,” Kilham said. “It’s very hard to train people to coexist with bears.”
What should you do if you see a black bear?
If you find yourself outdoors in a bear-populated area, it’s important to know what to do. First, don’t panic if you come across one. “Black bears especially are never going to attack you unless they feel super provoked, unless they feel like it is a life-and-death situation for them,” said Wynn-Grant. “All you have to do is back away slowly.” And do not get between a mother bear and her cub. You can also make loud noises to scare it off but do this while backing down, she said. “[Black bears] have limited energy. To get in a fight takes so much physical energy for them that they would really prefer not to.”
One last tip: Though Fusco can be seen making contact with one of the cubs in the video he shot, you should never approach a bear in the wild, no matter how cute. “Don’t try this at home,” Fusco said.