It is a big day for some bear cubs that almost did not get to grow up. They were found last summer at a Nevada County gas station, taken from a man charged with illegally killing their mother. They weighed just 15 pounds each and would have no chance alone in the forest.
So they were brought to the only certified bear rehabilitation facility in California -- the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, run by Cheryl and Tom Millham.
"We are giving them an opportunity, a second chance at life, to be a wild animal," said Tom.
That chance starts today. The cubs spent the summer at the center eating and growing, then they began hibernating. Now they're moving to a den in the wild. First, veterinarian Kevin Willits gives them a sedative. As the drug starts to take effect, volunteers guard the door and Tom wrangles the cubs.
The male cub was sedated first, so he's already immobilized. He's a big load now -- 90 pounds. Volunteers carry him inside for a check-up. They want to make sure the bears are healthy before they're released. They are being handed over to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Marc Kenyon is their man in charge of bears.
"We use the eye guards to help make sure that they stay calm while still under the anesthesia," said Kenyon.
The female cub is much smaller, 54 pounds, but just heavy enough to be released safely. This is a happy moment for the couple that has given the cubs such good care.
"Hopefully they'll be running across the mountains, climbing trees, doing what bears should do," said Cheryl.
The bears are loaded into a cage in a pickup truck. Then they're on the road, bound for Sagehen Forest, north of Lake Tahoe.
"Quite remote and away from people so these bears don't have the tendency to walk into town and get straight into trouble," said Kenyon.
After an hour-and-a-half drive the bears are moved to a snowcat to head out to their new home. Nine orphan cubs have been successfully released in this area since 2004, so the cubs' chances of survival are very good. The last part of the trip is by sled.
Finally, it's time to load the cubs into their new den. It's actually a plastic dog house covered with snow and outfitted with a bed of straw. The team gently arranges the bears inside.
"We try to give them a safe sense of security. It gives them that sense like, 'Hey I'm safe, I'm in a secure spot, nothing can find me,'" said Kenyon.
The den door is covered with tree branches and a lot of snow and now it's up to the bears. If all goes as hoped they'll wake up, check out their new neighborhood then snuggle back in for the rest of the winter.
The man accused of illegally killing the cubs' mother is facing four misdemeanor charges. That wonderful wildlife center that cared for cubs is a non-profit that depends on private donations.
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. They could always use some help. If you would like to volunteer or donate, call: 1 (530) 577-2273 or check out their website: www.ltwc.org andwww.savebears.org
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney