Andy Deegan was filling birdfeeders and letting the dog out in the early morning gloom when he encountered what he thought might be “the biggest squirrel I’ve ever heard” scrambling up a large white pine just outside his New London home.
It turned out to be a bear cub — an orphan. The missing mother was likely the same bear reported struck and killed by a car nearby on Interstate 89 a week earlier. Authorities hadn’t been able to locate a cub that ran off after the accident.
The Deegan family — Andy and Carrie along with their two children and a number of relatives — were gathering for Thanksgiving on Wednesday when they found themselves immersed in a four-day project: capture and transport an orphan bear now visible from inside their living room.
They contacted Fish and Game dispatchers, who recommended monitoring the cub over the weekend to see if a mom would retrieve it. Carrie tracked the cub in the snow to verify it had arrived alone without a mother. Andy contacted world-renowned bear expert Ben Kilham, who operates a regional bear rescue and rehabilitation facility, the Kilham Bear Center in Lyme. Kilham recommended they keep the cub nearby by feeding it.
Both Ben and Andy reached out to Fish and Game’s bear team leader, Andrew Timmins.
He said the number of orphan bear cubs has spiked this fall.
Timmins estimates the New Hampshire bear population was 5,800 last spring. A total of 1,033 bears were killed during the autumn hunting season. He estimates another 150 to 200 bears died from a range of accidents or natural causes for a best guess at the current population around 4,500.
Timmins says the Kilham facility is unique. It provides critical care in years when starvation or abandonment results in a spike in orphans.
A fall famine is severely impacting the behavior of mice, squirrels, turkeys, deer and bears. The snow and bitter cold further complicate the search for food by local wildlife. Birdfeeders are a beacon to rodents. Predators will follow. Ornamental landscapes are attracting hungry deer. The red oak acorn bust is not an anomaly but part of a natural cycle following huge regional acorn crops that occurred in 2015 and 2016. Along with beechnuts, berries and apples, red oak acorns are the most important autumn wildlife food in central and southern New Hampshire.
Winter starvation is now inevitable.
Due to a lack of food, many sows’ milk had dried up and mothers and cubs are entering winter malnourished this autumn. According to Timmins, the orphans include nine cubs from motor vehicle strikes, four cubs from sows shot raiding goat or chicken pens, five cubs from sows killed by hunters and thirty cubs orphaned by unknown causes. Earlier in the season, “Mink,” an infamous Hanover bear whose previous cubs had entered homes was relocated and four new cubs were brought to Kilham.
Some of the cubs will remain awake eating apples, dried corn and dog kibble. Their percentage of body fat dictates hibernation. Most arrived in rough shape, underweight and malnourished.
First-year cubs typically weigh 50 pounds with 30 percent body fat before they den with their mothers. Pregnant females need a higher 50 percent body fat before denning. Yearling cubs who left sows last spring and are now in dens of their own typically weigh 75 pounds.
But this year, cubs have been coming to Kilham at 25 pounds or less. Underweight bears cannot den successfully. Bear birth rates will likely fall this winter due to poor nutrition. More single cubs will emerge from dens with their mothers next spring as opposed to twins and triplets.
Timmins offers a sobering assessment: “Right now the only bears on the landscape are orphan cubs and they are starving to death. None of us want cubs to die on peoples’ lawns. We also don’t want to overwhelm the Kilhams, but they won’t turn away cubs. We keep finding more. Others we won’t find. Some adults will succumb too. … The bear population will reflect this fall for years to come.”
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Back at the Deegans’ house in New London, Timmins delivered a cub-size cage trap from the regional office in Lancaster while on another errand and showed the Deegans how to bait and set it. He asked them to keep in touch and to transport the bear themselves to Kilham if they proved successful over the holiday weekend.
Thanksgiving dawned bitter cold with a low of 4 and a high of 14 degrees with subzero wind-chill temperatures. The orphan cub had barely moved from its pine tree perch. Shelled peanuts and black oil sunflowers lured the hungry cub down where it fed outside of the trap before clambering back up.
Carrie upped the ante by adding slices of Thanksgiving desserts: walnut honey cake and great-grandma’s molasses cookies. Inside the living room they watched the cub visibly shivering. Their vigil included eating a turkey dinner “that had nearly gone cold” and in darkness because glare from the lights on the inside of the window made it hard to monitor the cub, whom the children had by now named “Boo-boo.”
“The low point came on Friday morning when the cub was gone — that was the worst” said Carrie. During the night, the cub descended, ate some bait and returned back up the tree. Sleep deprived, Andy saw the cub sniffing around the trap at 5:45 a.m. Friday morning but a nearby deer spooked and the cub ran off without triggering the trap door. Bait had frozen under the pivot pan and made it stick.
Doughnuts to the rescue
Determined to save the shivering cub, the Deegan clan set out to track Boo-boo for a quarter mile though a swamp and forest, splitting up when tracks became indistinct. Carrie’s brother, Micah, relocated a fresh track and found the cub high in a tall pine on a nearby property.
Consulted by phone, Timmins suggested relocating the trap and trying again. He recommended using doughnuts, maple-flavored doughnuts doused with aromatic artificial vanilla flavoring — irresistible. “If you can at least keep it fed, that’d be great.”
The Deegans re-baited the trap Friday afternoon and resolved to stay away until Saturday morning.
They found the cub inside the trap early Saturday. They covered it with a blue tarp, loaded it onto a plastic sled and pulled it for several hundred feet to the nearest roadside, where they drove it to their garage, where they called Kilham and made an appointment to deliver the cub.
As an afterthought, Andy decided to slip a bowl of water under the trap door. In an instant, the bear shot out and got loose inside the garage.
“Get back in the house kids!” Carrie yelled. The adults debated how to recapture the cub now climbing the garage walls, clinging to studs and hiding behind a tool chest.
“Everyone put on thick gloves. We debated throwing a blanket over it but it would retreat into small spaces. He was fast and slippery. I tried to grab him by the scruff of his neck but he was strong and I couldn’t pull him off the wall,” said Andy.
Micah spied a net. He netted the cub and dragged it across the floor, somehow managing to get it into a dog crate they reinforced with zip ties at the corners, covered with a dog blanket and wrapped with ratchet straps. Houdini might have been proud. The cub eventually stopped thrashing and quieted, awaiting its fate.
Overwhelmed by orphans
Ben Kilham emerges from his house and looks at the assembled Deegan clan. He explains: “We had no bears last year. Until two months ago, I had nine bears and now this one will total 54. You can do the math.” Forty-five new arrivals in two months to the rustic, private facility on several hundred rural acres. “Most of the mothers were killed by cars on the interstates. They are all out looking for food and there is none. The last time it was this bad was back in 2004.”
Kilham has worked with bears for 25 years. Ben, his wife, Deb, and sister, Phoebe, operate the not-for-profit bear center. It costs approximately $2,500 per bear annually just in food to keep rescued cubs alive. A large barn with mesh fencing for walls serves as an indoor/outdoor enclosure with three levels of trees and platforms with boxes for hibernating. Human visitors are not allowed in order to keep the bears wild. A separate 8-acre outdoor enclosure contains healthier, fatter cubs that have already entered dens for the winter.
The same saga has unfolded in other towns reporting abandoned bear cubs. This week, more cubs arrived from Bridgewater, Hinsdale, Sandwich and Shelburne. Cubs have been arriving almost daily since Sept. 26 when three were rescued in Moultonborough after their mother was hit by a car.
As we approach the barn, Ben Kilham instructs us to keep voices down. The kids are hoping to watch their cub released behind the curtain of chain link fence.
The Deegan’s 8-year-old daughter approaches Kilham with one important question: “Do the bears already have names?”
Kilham turns with a question of his own: “What’s the name of this one?”
“Boo-boo!” she answers.
Later Carrie tells me her daughter was concerned there might be duplicate names. The orphan cubs are not named or tagged. Usually they get metal ear tags when they are released after it greens up next spring. This year, it’s been difficult to keep up with the new arrivals. Kilham estimates Boo-boo weighs 25 pounds. We carry the dog kennel inside the barn where bears lie draped overhead. We pass the indoor enclosure containing a tiny 15-pound cub recently delivered by a Vermont game warden. Its mother was shot by a hunter earlier in autumn. Kilham says the cub was nearly dead when it first arrived.
Kilham removes the blanket and cuts the zip ties. The cub scrabbles claws on the plastic kennel floor startling a bear overhead that drops down and scampers away. “Oh and they might also poop on you,” Ben offers without a hint of a smile. The cub sprints from the open kennel to the far wall of the barn while peeing, obviously terrified. From
overhead dozens of bears shift around and watch the new arrival scramble up to a platform. None of these cubs will be fitted with radio-collars to be tracked. These are rescue bears, not study bears. Kilham has a local veterinarian on call to help care for any sick cubs. The simple goal for the cubs is to minimize human contact, help them gain weight and get them back into the forest as quickly as possible next spring. Ben says “these cubs are wild and have already had 11 months experience with their natural mothers. They will go wild easily” when released next spring.
Phoebe Kilham arrives concerned about our entourage. Her goal is to get the people away from the enclosure. Most often a biologist or game warden drops off orphan cubs. Phoebe softens slightly as we gather around and ask questions. “If we could only get one week without new cubs coming in, the bears would all get to know each other and bond,” Ben explains. “Bears have the ability to make friends and given time, they do. Almost any other mammal would have difficulty being around so many of its own kind. The number of incoming bears will slow at some point.”
I ask Kilham for his most important goal and he focuses on fundraising for construction of a new heated building with at least five indoor pens with an attached 10-acre outdoor fenced enclosure.
“Right now, we are basically a hotel for these cubs.”
Many will remain awake to feed and gain weight until they are released into a suitable habitat by Fish and Game next spring. “They don’t necessarily go back to where they were picked up,” Kilham said.
Timmins has earned Ben Kilham’s respect. “Andy is dedicated. He likes bears a lot. Many other Fish and Game departments wouldn’t even bother …”