Orphaned polar bear cubs seek good home

Mother bear killed by wildlife officers after encounter with campers near Kuujjuaq


The safe arrival of two orphaned polar bear cubs at Jardin Zoologique, Quebec City’s zoo, marked the happy ending of a frightening encounter between a group of campers and a hungry mother polar bear near Kuujjuaq last week.

At around 5:30 last Thursday morning, not far from the mouth of the Koksoak River, campers with Kuujjuaq’s Survivor Skills program discovered a polar bear on their porch.

One of the campers had been heading to the toilet when he ran into a polar bear just outside the cabin door.

The young man slammed the door and went back inside, but the bear started to ram against the door, waking up the other four youth and their two adult guides.

The polar bear was apparently drawn to the camp by the presence of food.

After attempting to scare the polar bear away, one of the guides finally shot the animal.

“The guy was very lucky to have his rifle inside with one bullet. He just opened the door a bit and pointed the rifle at the bear’s neck,” said Kuujjuaq’s wildlife protection officer, Vallée Saunders, who later saw the long claw marks she left on the cabin door.

After the bear was killed, the group noticed two polar bear cubs nearby. Concerned over the fate of the bears, who would not leave the carcass of their mother, the guides alerted officials in Kuujjuaq who decided that the cubs would be captured alive.

The last time live polar bear cubs were captured along Ungava Bay was in 1988, in similar circumstances.

Saunders and fellow wildlife protection officers David Watt and Mark Kooktook arrived on the scene Friday. They pulled the grieving cubs into dog carriers and used a sling to transport them back to Kuujjuaq by helicopter.

“They were not too happy,” Saunders said. “And they were a lot bigger than we expected.”

That night, the bears slept in an empty garage where Saunders and the other officers went to check on them.

“That night I fed them two salmon,” Saunders said.

And as the cubs relaxed, he was even able to rub their noses.

The bears finally left Kuujjuaq via First Air on Saturday, after having consumed quantities of fish and milk.

They arrived in Quebec City, safe and sound, although, according to one witness, they were hot and thirsty on their arrival.

Eight months old, the two bears weigh between 50 and 60 pounds.

“Left on their own, they would have been condemned to certain death,” said Hélène Jolicoeur, a biologist with Quebec’s wildlife service, La Société de la faune et des parcs du Québec.

“Usually polar bears give birth in December while they’re hibernating in their den. Blind and weighing only 500 grams at birth, the baby bears take their first steps outside the den in March. They stay with their mother for two or three years until they are large and strong enough to feed themselves on their own.”

The bears are now at Quebec City’s zoo, where they are thriving on a combination of fish and meal, according to Elaine Dumais of Quebec’s Jardin Zoologique. The bears have taken over an empty display space at the zoo, where the public can also see them playing, eating and bathing in a pool.

Officials are scouting around for a suitable “foster” home for the bears.

“They couldn’t take care of themselves in the wild,” said Dumais. “They would have had to remain longer with their mother. But we won’t send them just anywhere.”

The bears will likely end up in a Canadian or European zoo. One thing is certain: they can’t be exported to the United States because the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids any trade in polar bears that have been captured in the wild.

Before the polar bears leave Quebec, they’ll be given suitable names to reflect their origins. Quebec’s wildlife service, in collaboration with the Kativik Regional Government, is sponsoring a “name the polar bear” contest.

One bear will be named by Nunavimmiut, the other by residents of southern Quebec.

The winners will receive $225 as well as a certificate. The contest ends Sept. 24 at midnight. Suggestions can be sent to Betsy Berthe at the KRG, 819-964-2961 or bberthe@krg.ca.

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