Three orphaned grizzly cubs now on display at the privately-owned Greater Vancouver Zoo represent a disappearing opportunity for survival of a threatened species, says conservationists.
General manager of the zoo, Serge Lussier, said Wednesday, “There’s two options for bears so young when the mother dies is euthanasia, or find an approved zoo.”
The trio were found by Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers in Crowsnest Pass in April after their mother was killed by hunters.
They were sent for care away from the public at the Calgary Zoo, who ended up passing the responsibility to the Aldergrove zoo.
During that time, 104 signatories – many B.C. and Alberta scientists or conservationists – wrote a letter to the Alberta government, urging the rehabilitation and release of the cubs back into the wild, “given that grizzly bears are a threatened species in Alberta,” the letter reads.
More specifically, “the age and health of these three cubs make them ideal candidates for the only grizzly cub rehabilitation program in North America, namely the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in Smithers, B.C.”
The Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resources sent an email statement to the Star, confirming the Smithers’ rehabilitation program was ruled out because it “is a pilot, and not considered operational.”
“Formal best management practices for the facility are in the process of being developed. These are critical to standardize facility construction, humane care and handling and proof of concept,” the statement continued.
Co-founder of the shelter, rehabilitationist Angelika Langen, has successfully released 22 bears into the wild during the 13 years the program has been in operation.
“Everyone says we are still in a pilot project and they are awaiting results, yet they don’t give us the cubs to prove it,” she remarked.
Of the three six-month-old grizzly cubs at Greater Vancouver Zoo – two of them are female.
“Our efforts to prove long-term [grizzly bear] survival and re-integration into the wild population would have made a big step forward with the females,” said Langen, noting their reproduction capabilities.
As it stands, in Alberta there are only 700 surviving grizzly bears, according to the Alberta Wilderness Association. This, compared to 15,000 most recently recorded in B.C. by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
Of 25 cubs government approved for the Northern Lights Wildlife project, only three were female, Langen emphasized.
B.C. bear researcher/biologist and letter signatory, Wayne McCrory, said the zoo’s one-acre enclosure is not nearly large enough to house the cubs for the rest of their lives.
“Bears are not social animals. They are very solitary individuals and like to have their own space,” said the grizzly bear researcher and biologist of 40 years.
“Typically, they range over very large areas, and that’s their freedom – that is their home.”
McCrory, also a director with the with the Valhalla Wilderness Committee, said that because the Calgary Zoo purposefully kept the cubs away from the public, they “have a good chance of being rehabilitated” and released back into Alberta wilderness.
Greater Vancouver Zoo animal care manager, Menita Prasad, maintained that because the cubs are “human imprinted,” it is not ideal for them to be released into wild.
McCrory – with years of experience reducing human-bear conflict in Kananaskis Country, Alta. – said the zoo’s mission of educating Metro Vancouver’s public about the species is redundant, considering Grouse Mountain already “takes care of that with their two captive grizzly bears.”
“Ultimately, the zoo stands to profit by increased attendance from these captive bears,” McCrory said.
B.C. conservationist and director of Bears Matter, Barb Murray, along with other letter signatories, like McCrory, are in a race against time to see a bear rehabilitation expert examine the zoo’s new cubs to assess whether they are eligible for rehabilitation.
“We are prepared to pay the expert to fly in,” Murray said, “Six months isn’t that old.”
“Until we have a definitive answer from a bear expert it is a question mark we just can’t answer. Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,” she urged.
The zoo in Aldergrove has previously been criticized for how it cares for its animals, particularly large species which have died in its care.
Lussier, the zoo’s general manager, insisted the triplets are “adapting well to their new surroundings and are having fun discovering their new habitat.”
“We have the habitats, we have the experts, and were so proud to be a part of this,” he said.