Lake Tahoe wildlife center is busy with bears

Lake Tahoe wildlife center is busy with bears
February 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Winter is usually a slow time for a wildlife rescue center at Lake Tahoe, but this year is different. The center has more orphaned bear cubs than ever before. The good news is, they are all healthy and will be returned to the wild. ABC7 News took a look at what it takes to give a baby bear a second chance at life.

You may remember two bear cubs we showed you last summer after they were confiscated in Nevada County, taken from a man accused of illegally killing their mother. Another orphaned cub was found near Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. Her mother was killed illegally by a hunter using dogs.

"She was hungry, she was cold and she had been hit by a car at that time and was slightly limping," said Ann Bryant with the BEAR League.

In the wild, these bear cubs would die without their mothers. Instead, they ended up at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care center. The center is also Cheryl and Tom Millham's home. They take care of all kinds of animals; but right now, they've got their hands full with bears.

The center gets an average of four cubs a year, but on this day there are 10. Seven are hibernating, snuggled in little buildings in the backyard. Live cameras show the bears snoozing peacefully. The other three cubs are awake in a cage and we saw what it was like at feeding time. First Cheryl cleans up the floor. The cubs peek down from a platform at the top of the cage.

"Bears are more afraid of us than we are of them," Tom said. "They have a fear of humans naturally. We want to keep that fear."

The cubs stay up on the platform as long as people are around.

"They came in at 11, 12, and 20 pounds," Tom said. "And if we put them into hibernation, it probably would have killed them because they are just not big enough."

Now they are about twice that size, but still too small to hibernate. This is the only certified bear rehabilitation facility in California. That requires a lot of know-how and cages lined with chain link because bears are good climbers.

"They use both their teeth and their claws," Tom said. "And they are just, they are remarkable."

Cubs are brought to the center from all over the state. The most famous patient was "Lil' Smokey" whose paws were burned in a forest fire. The Millham's get help from a team of volunteers, including a veterinarian.

They've cared for 53 cubs since the year 2000. When the cubs are not hibernating they go through huge buckets of fruits and vegetables, carefully prepared every day.

"The ten bears were costing us $800 a week to feed them," Cheryl said. "You can't feed them garbage, you gotta feed them the proper food."

The food is scattered on the cage floor. Then, live cameras in the office show the cubs coming down to eat.

"They are gaining weight perfect, so they can be released probably in April," Cheryl said.

In California, it is illegal to shoot a mother bear who has cubs and starting Jan. 1, a new state law made it illegal to use dogs to hunt bears. Animal lovers hope that will mean fewer mother bears shot by mistake and fewer cubs left as orphans.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care and the BEAR League are non-profits that depend entirely on donations to feed and care for injured and orphaned wild animals. If you would like to volunteer or donate, call: 1 (530) 577-2273 or check out their website: www.ltwc.org and http://www.savebears.org/

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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