NarwhalNothernLightsRescueShoot-16

Meeting Wonder, an orphaned bear cub, left me with all the feelings

My visit to a northern B.C. cub shelter brought hope, inspiration and fear as bears face increasing threats to their habitat

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A sedated black bear cub on a blue tarp.


I bury my face in the little bear’s fur and breathe in deeply. It smells fresh, like a dog or cat that just came in from the forest. It’s not what I expected.

“Babies are babies,” Kim Gruijs, head caretaker at Northern Lights Wildlife Society shelter in Smithers, B.C., says with a smile and a shrug.

This baby is an orphaned black bear, less than a year old. I run my fingers through her fur and feel her warmth under my hand. Her breathing is soft and she seems fragile. I imagine what it must have been like to lose her mother and be alone, too skinny to hibernate and too young to find food. 

That was a couple of weeks ago, and I was immediately smitten.

I went to the wildlife shelter, an organization known for rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned baby bears, to meet the cub and learn more about connections between a rapidly changing climate and the humans and animals colliding within it.

Last year, extreme drought conditions decimated wild berries and other natural food sources while hundreds of massive wildfires swept across the province. As bears are pushed out of their habitat, they go wherever they can get a meal. Sometimes that leads them into conflict with humans and, sadly, that often means bears get killed. When a mom dies — whether she’s shot, run over by a train or truck or lost to a fire — her babies are left to fend for themselves.

That’s where Angelika Langen comes in. The wildlife centre’s co-founder has been saving baby bears for more than three decades. This year, the numbers are off the charts. Northern Lights is currently caring for more than 120 orphaned cubs — the most they’ve ever seen.

“Every time a call comes in, you want to respond,” Langen told me. “There’s a life at the other end and if you don’t do anything, there’s death.”

Photographer Marty Clemens and I showed up at the centre on a somewhat-dystopian midwinter day that felt way more like spring. It was like my story was writing itself: a rapidly changing climate pushes bears out of their natural surroundings and into increased conflict with humans. An adorable cub, alone and helpless, is given a second chance.

Then I met her and, like so many love stories, things got complicated fast.

We watched as Langen and Gruijs sedated the cub and brought her into an examination room. The little bear had shown up on a farm about 400 kilometres away, starving and dehydrated. Caught sneaking a meal of livestock feed, she was fed loaves of Wonder Bread until Langen arrived to pick her up. In homage to the bread, they named her Wonder. 

 
Northern Lights Wildlife shelter staff and Narwhal reporter Matt Simmons look at a sedated bear cub.
See where 120 orphaned baby bears take shelter as B.C. wildfires and drought shrink their habitat

I’ve been around a lot of bears but, for obvious reasons, never too close. Standing next to her and watching her breathing and little dreamlike twitches, I felt this overwhelming affinity for the orphaned cub. But here’s the thing: she was injured, favouring one of her front legs. And while Langen and Gruijs were trying to be optimistic, I knew what that meant: she might not make it.

But Wonder still has a chance. If all goes well, they’ll release her in June somewhere near where she was rescued, but safely away from humans.

(You can read all about Wonder and the centre’s rescue efforts in my story, with wonderful photos from Marty to boot.) 

I’m left with all the feelings. Hope, inspiration, fear. It’s a lot like falling in love: a bit confusing and sometimes you feel sick to your stomach. But it’s totally worth it.

Take care and remember love is often found in unlikely places,

Matt Simmons
Northwest B.C. reporter
Matt Simmons headshot

 
A caterpillar (right) approaches pink yarn on the ground.

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Note from a Narwhal


After our co-founder Emma Gilchrist penned a Valentine’s Day note reflecting on her love for the members who make The Narwhal’s journalism possible, more than a few of you reached out to express mutual appreciation.

“Your message reminds me that there are younger generations indeed striving to make things better,” read a note from Don, a longtime member living on Vancouver Island. “Love for life and for each other is what we all must have to cradle that hope. As long as there is love there is hope. Thanks so much for what you’re doing.”

Thanks, Don! And thanks to everyone who gives what they can to help us tell stories that matter.

 
Become a Narwhal

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This week in The Narwhal

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The list of companies whose marketing is being accused of deceiving Canadians about their environmental commitments continues to grow.

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What we’re reading


Environment Canada has put instruments on the CN Tower, among other locations, to get comprehensive insights into winter air pollution. Ivan Semeniuk has the details in The Globe and Mail.

Tla’amin Nation is set to reclaim its home and salmon fishing site 151 years after it was taken, Abby Frances reports for IndigiNews.

 
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When you’re feeling all the feels after soaking in a story about orphan cubs. Tell your friends to sign up for our newsletter for reporting that gets into the hope and the challenges for our natural world.

 
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