Black bears are reputed fearsome hunters but one man in Ontario who has been working with them for over 20 years has discovered the true nature of these gentle giants. By Mahina Perrot
“Now go!”The deep, self-assured voice of the man on the top of the rusted transport cage rings in the still warm, clear air of late summer. Almost at once, one of the two huge balls of black fur that had, until then, remained cautious and rather relaxed dart out of the cage. The other bear cub follows a bit later. For a while both can be seen exploring their new surroundings and nibbling on a couple of dead branches on the ground, before being slowly swallowed by the luxuriant green and brown-spotted Canadian bush. Grinning, bear expert Mike McIntosh steps down the cage on the pickup truck and comes toward us. “That’s it,” he simply says.
I smile back with relief, feeling a strange mixture of relief and apprehension. We had just been driving three and a half hours to bring the two healthy eighteen month old black bear cubs to this remote location and in just five minutes it was over. I secretly wish them well.
“They will be fine as long as they stay away from humans,” Mike affirms, sensing my unease. And they most likely will avoid humans, he adds, as he had ensured the two orphaned cubs had had minimal contact with him and visitors during the time he was feeding and caring for them at his private sanctuary back in Huntsville.
There, on a 88 acre property is located Mike McIntosh’s Bear With Us Sanctuary and Rehabilitation for Bears, Ontario’s only refuge specializing in orphaned, injured and dispatched bears. The four enclosures there have holding capacity of up to 35 bears and since it officially became a charity in 1999, Bear With Us (BWU) has rehabilitated and released more than 300 bears back into the wild. The centre takes in bears found injured or live-trapped in areas where they were a nuisance, as well as orphaned bear cubs brought to them mainly by locals and Ministry of Natural Resources officers. Mike tends to the animals and, whenever possible, releases them. Bear With Us also provides a permanent home for non-releasable bears such as ex-circus bear 25-year-old Molly and 21-year-old Yogi, both of whom have become Mike’s most faithful friends.
Mike founded and operates BWU, nursing young cubs back to health with a special nutritious milk formula until they are comfortable enough to eat solid food. The older omnivorous residents at the sanctuary get a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. Once old enough or returned to health if injured, the bears are released in the same general area where they were found, which helps ensure that each district in the province keeps a record of the number and health of bears in their area.
The two cubs we had just released however came from Peterborough and Bancroft, two neighboring districts in the same province, but since they had gotten along so well together during their stay at Bear With US, Mike made the special request to release them together; which was granted. “That way they can choose to stick together or go separate ways", he says.
According to a 10 year study by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring program of World Wildlife Fund, the estimated American black bear population in Canada has grown by six to 24 per cent, from around 382,500 in 1988 to between approximately 450,000 in the mid-1990s. Today an estimated 400,000 bears roam through 9 of 10 Canadian provinces, with 75,000 to 100,000 of them located in Ontario alone.
Reasons for the black bears’ success is mostly due to their incredible ability to adapt to human activities. They learn to live off abandoned farmlands which, as they return to old field habitat, provide much better habitat for bears with a lot of berries, aspen and hawthorn becoming available. Milder winters also mean more natural food supplies for the bears. Picture: Mike McIntosh
In fact, black bears are the ultimate “cleaners” of the Canadian ecosystem. They are biologically programmed to eat pretty much anything that is edible, from the widespread berries and nuts most available in the heights of summer to insects, grubs, fish spawning, small mammals and, in some rare instances, bigger animals like beavers and moose calves. They are also not very susceptible to parasites and diseases and can live more than 20 years in the wild.
It is their adaptability and other black bears’ unique attributes that have fascinated Mike from the start. “When I was young I read all the bear books I could find in the library and I read that bears were short sighted, but bears have color vision, which a lot of animals don’t, and their vision is at least as good as ours. Their hearing is also far more sensitive than a human’s and their soft pads enable them to more quietly", Mike explains to me.
“Also, people tend to think that because bears sniff a lot they can’t see well when in fact they do that because their nose is their dominant and most reliable sensory organ. Their sense of smell is about 100 times higher than a human being’s.”
Having worked with hundreds of captive and wild animals at Bear With Us and having also visited Russia to take part in an ongoing Brown Bear study, Mike has come to the conclusion that bears are not the dangerous predator people say they are. On the contrary, they are gentle creatures and each of them has their own personality.
“I have always loved wild animals and was fascinated by wild bears,” he adds. “It started out small, with Mishoomis an old, blind bear from a road side zoo in East Ontario and from there my passion grew.”
As well as rehabilitating as many bears as he can Mike also wants to help people understand and appreciate how to coexist with them. “Generally, any bear will run away from any form of confrontation, even mother bears. I learned that if they don’t have a reason to hurt you why would they?”
I got the thrilling (and worrying!) opportunity to validate Mike’s theory myself when I met Yogi, who came to BWU after his owner realised he was becoming too old and to big to continue its role as a cute little bear cub mascot. I watch as the furry animal comes to me. He eyes me wearily and hesitates a little before gently sucking up the marshmallow I am holding out to him. After a couple of minutes he seems to decide I am ready for his little “test” and takes my arm in his mouth. I jump and pull away quickly. Mike is on the phone and sees what is happening but encourages me to let Yogi come to me. But while I was watching Mike Togi had come behind me and bends and bites my leg gently, then my tight. By then I am starting to become frightened, but don't want the bear to feel it.
I look up at a bright-eyed, slightly amused Mike. “Trust me,” he says. “Put out your arm and let him grab it, it’s just a test, he won’t bite hard.”
I swallow with difficulty, and I put out my arm again. Sure enough, Yogi takes it in his mouth, quite softly though biting hard enough as if just to see if I would pull away again. When I don't I see his eyes gleam with pleasure and, with a triumphant look in his eyes he lets my arm go. Yogi is not a wild bear, but after meeting him I can sense both why people are afraid of those big animals they don’t know much about and why Mike is so devoted to helping bears and humans coexist.
Black bears’ only natural predators are other, generally older, black bears that occasionally kill and eat bear cubs especially in the Spring, when food is scarce. But black bears also unknowingly cause damage to livestock, apiaries and crops, or can become hazards in areas of human activity.
In Canada, each year, 6500 to 7000 of them are also legally hunted, from September through to November. Male black bears range from 114 to 272 kg, and females from 45.4 to 182 kg. However the thick coat and prominent layers of fat and fur they arbor at this time of year make it harder for hunters to differentiate a nursing mother from a young female or male bear so many cubs become orphaned at that time of year.
Picture: Bear With Us
In 2001, Bear With Us provided shelter and food for over 52 bears. “It was a bad year of food shortages and bears were killed because they were getting into people’s food and hunters orphaned a lot of bear cubs because bears would go to the baits and not be so wary as they normally would be", Mike says.
The last yet no less important threat to bears is loss of habitat due to the ever increasing demand for farmland and housing. This leads to a decrease in food sources and more bear sightings, so more human/bear conflicts.
Guiding principles for creating sustainable populations of black bears have been mapped out by the Ministry of Natural Resources which tries hard to establish a harmonious existence between humans and bears. Twenty-one states provide educational programs related to black bears, such as the Bear Wise Program in Ontario, which has proved successful thanks to its 24/7 emergency phone line.
Ministry of Natural Resources Senior Fish and Wildlife Technician Expert and Bear Wise Program coordinator Lorraine Norris has been working with wildlife custodian and licence-holder McIntosh for over ten years. It was she who had brought one of the cubs that had just been set free and she was here with us today to see them go back into the wild.
“We get a lot of calls about humans and bears conflicts,” she says to me. “[These often occur] when people leave their garbage out or live in cottage country or farmlands. This cub’s mother was removed by the police who had to ensure public safety and we became involved with the rescue so I brought it to Mike. I think the cubs will have a good chance of survival, there are a lot of good natural food sources at this time of year so they’ll be packing on a lot of weight.”
At Bear With Us, Mike also offers individual consultations with land owners and gives tips on how to not to encourage a nuisance bear by removing food attractants. He also personally goes out and catches and relocates individual bears when other solutions have been exhausted. But in most cases, a bear will seek to run away from humans and their habitations. “I have worked with approximately two hundreds adult wild black bears whether treating injuries or live trapping to resolve human/bear conflicts. Not one bear has attempted to injure me; bears just wish to get away from me. I have taken many pictures of bears’ fast fleeing butts.”
I think of the two fleeing butts I had just seen and smile to myself. Their future may be uncertain, but thanks to the work of Mike McIntosh at Bear With Us Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre for Bears, they have been given another chance at survival.
Did you know?
"Although Black Bears mate in early spring, the young only implant into the uterus in late summer if the female has had enough food to produce the substantial fat she needs to nurse her cubs from mid winter through spring. If she does not have enough food she will absorb her young back in her system so she can get pregnant again the next spring. The more food she has in mid-summer, the more cubs she will bring to term."
- Al Errington, President of Nature and Outdoor Tourism in Ontario
About Mike McIntosh
Mike McIntosh is an avid photographer passionate about wild places and animals, in particular bears with which he has been working for over 20 years.
He became fascinated about those misunderstood “predators” and after volunteering at the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (AVWS), Mike realized the importance of helping Canadians appreciate the attributes of their native neighbors.