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Fortress of the Bear

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FC: FORTRESS OF THE BEAR | Photos and Text by Chris Nunnally

1: Copyright © 2012 Chris Nunnally For more information about bears, visit the author's blog at www.wherethebearwalks.blogspot.com

4: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN In 2002, Sitka resident Les Kinnear - a former hunting and fishing guide - had had enough of picking up the local paper and reading about brown bear cubs that had been left orphaned after their mothers had been shot, usually for getting into trouble with humans and their food. These cubs, with no mother to protect and teach them, stood little chance of surviving on their own. Les declared that someone should take the initiative and do something to help give those cubs a chance at life. His wife Evy asked simply, "When do we start?" That began an intensive five-year endeavor to make the dream a reality. Les and Evy acquired two water clarifier tanks left abandoned for nine years on an old pulp mill site and began the long process of detoxing the tanks and removing three hundred tons of leftover materials. All that scrap metal was replaced with dirt, sod, grass, rocks, and trees. A swimming pool was added and a nearby mountain stream diverted to flow into the enclosure, creating a naturally filtering fresh water system. Then, in 2007, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game granted the Kinnear's their bear permit after a final inspection of the facility. The long years of hard, grueling work had finally paid off. Little did anyone suspect just how fortuitous the timing was...

6: CHAIK AND KILLISNOO | A gunshot rang out near Angoon on Admiralty Island, leaving dead the mother brown bear who was trying to obtain food for her three cubs at Whaler's Cove Lodge. Two of the cubs were rescued and taken to Fortress of the Bear just eight days after they had received their permit. The third cub, a female, was lost. The two males were transported to Sitka and, under the care of bear manager Christine Fenwick, began the process of acclimating to their new environment and their new, upright parents. They were named Killisnoo (kills-new) and Chaik (shy-eek) after two inlets on Admiralty Island near where they were orphaned. The cubs adapted quickly and now, five years later, are fully socialized and healthy brothers who seem just as curious about their visitors as their visitors are about them.

7: A brotherly wrestling match.

8: Majestic Chaik.

9: Bears are naturally curious animals. Killisnoo greets visitors by standing to catch their scent, a type of "handshake."

12: BEHAVIOR AND PERSONALITY Bears are as complex in their individual personalities as are humans and one sure way to tell Chaik and Killisnoo apart is by observing their behaviors. Chaik is by far the more reserved and stoic of the two, while Killisnoo is typically playful and rambunctious, often moving within seconds from a stick to a buoy toy to a fish in the water. This behavior has earned him the nickname "ADHD bear' among the Fortress staff. TRAINING THE BEARS To teach the bears to trust people and bond them to their keepers, training exercises are performed with them inside their den area. Working through a barrier, trainers teach the bears simple commands that re-enforce natural behaviors, with tasty grapes offered as reward. With a vocal command and a hand signal, the bears will open their mouths so that keepers can observe their gums and teeth, extend their paws through an opening in the barrier, place the top of their heads flat against the barrier (Chaik in particular enjoys getting his head scratched while in this position), stand, sit, lie down, and roll over. On occasion, Chaik will show affection by licking his keeper's face when a training session is over.

13: I worked with the bears in this fashion in the summer of 2010. One day, intern Marie and I found Killisnoo in the training room on a day when Chaik was being unusually aggressive towards him and not sharing any of his enrichment toys. He was lying against the wall with his head down and his paw extended through the barrier. Marie gently touched the palm of her hand to the pad of his paw and he slowly curled his claws around her fingers and held on, head still lowered to the floor. The loneliness he felt was apparent in his body language and demeanor. Clearly, these are emotional beings! After the success of raising and socializing Chaik and Killisnoo, the Fortress was given three new sibling brown bear cubs in 2009 for rehabilitation. Given the names Kootz, Denali, and Sitka, they now reside at the Bronx Zoo in New York, where they receive 2 million visitors per year. | The bears use their lips and tongue to gently take grapes from their keeper's fingers.

15: Me with Seek, the black bear cub in 2010. Upper left corner: Seek with Les Kinnear.

16: SEEK, THE BLACK BEAR CUB In 2010, a family on Alaska's Excursion Inlet found a starving five-pound black bear cub on a tidal flat and took him into their home. They reported it to Fish and Game, who sent him to the Fortress, believing him to be a brown bear. About noon on the day that we received him, Fish and Game determined that he was a black bear and, feeling that a black bear would not be a viable zoo animal due to the preponderance of the species across the country, notified us that they were going to take him back and euthanize him. Upset, we turned to anyone that we could for help and slowly the word began to spread around town. Tourists who came to visit us that day initiated a "Save the Cub" campaign onboard their cruise ship and the local radio station and newspaper quickly picked up the story. With all of these media outlets working together, word even reached Jeff Corwin, who was shooting an episode of his Animal Planet series in India. Jeff personally contacted us and told us that if the cub were killed, they would broadcast the story to the world. With so much public support behind us, we decided to stand our ground and we refused to hand the cub over. Fish and Game backed down and agreed to let us keep him...at least temporarily. After three weeks of nursing Seek (named after the native Tlingit word for "black bear"), back to health and socializing him to people, he was transferred to the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas where he resides as "Scooter".

17: TOBY, BALOO, AND LUCKY In July of that same summer, a female brown bear with three cubs began breaking into the facility on a nightly basis and making themselves at home. There was no food available to them and no other attractants, yet they persisted in returning night after night. We finally learned from Phil Mooney, a local Fish and Game biologist, that a big male bear had been harassing sows with cubs in our area, so it's possible that she was bringing the cubs in for protection, recognizing that this place which smelled like humans and bears together might be safe. Finally, Phil Mooney gave us permission to capture the family in our second habitat enclosure so that he could radio-collar the mother and track them. When that was accomplished, we released them back into the wild and Phil spent the next two or three weeks tracking their movements and sharing his findings with us. Strangely enough, they continued breaking in to the facility and the mother never did take her cubs deep into the woods to find food, despite the salmon run that was underway. Eventually the collar signal stopped moving and the three cubs returned on their own. The mother was found dead, her intestines packed full of plastic garbage bags, and we were given permission to keep her offspring as permanent residents. In May of 2011, the Fortress briefly cared for a brown bear cub named Pandora. She now resides at Casey Anderson's Montana Grizzly Encounter as Lucy.

19: Left: Baloo and Lucky asleep on a fiberglass pipe. What's holding Lucky up there? Top: Baloo sitting in his chair. Bottom: Chaik in a rare romping mood.

20: Above: Chaik eating deer scraps in the snow. Opposite page, clockwise from upper left: Seek at play; Toby, the female of the young three, saying her prayers; Chaik floating on his island.

24: "Hey you, get off my stump!" | "That's right, MY stump!"

26: WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A CAPTIVE BEAR? Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of captive bears and one question that we are commonly asked at the Fortress is "What is the value of a captive bear?" Personally I have witnessed a number of extraordinary things while working with and observing these bears. I've seen evidence of their intelligence, their emotions, and their amazingly complex thought processes; things that are not as apparent through the more limited perspective that wilderness observation gives us. One afternoon in summer 2010, I gave a tour to a lady who was deathly afraid of bears because of the large number of attack stories she had been exposed to. She told me that she wanted to overcome that fear but that she was nervous and apprehensive about seeing the bears. I assured her that she would not have any contact with them and would not even be close to them, but she remained uncertain. Finally, egged on by her adult son, she relented and agreed to take a look. I gave her the back stories on Chaik and Killisnoo - our two largest bears - explained the purposes behind our enrichment projects, and demonstrated our training techniques to show how the bears interact with us. When she left, it was with a bright smile on her face. No words were needed. I could tell she had gotten the message. To me, that one experience answers the above question. Not only do captive bears give us the opportunity to better understand their wild cousins but, by witnessing their behaviors up close, by understanding that they're complex and intelligent creatures and not the monsters of horror stories, we gain not only insights into how to co-exist with them, but also the desire to.

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  • By: Chris N.
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