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Activists and Officials Battle Over Orphaned Bear

State Fish and Game authorities want people to stop feeding the three-legged cub and have turned down an offer of sanctuary.

March 13, 2005|Robert Hollis | Special to The Times

An orphaned three-legged bear cub panhandling for food along a popular snowmobile trail in the High Sierra has triggered a sometimes acrimonious debate between animal lovers who want the young bruin rescued and wildlife officials who say they should let nature take its course.

Since late December, the black bear that snowmobilers named Cody has been making a public restroom his sometime home in a snowbound Alpine County campground, said Patti Clarey, Stanislaus National Forest recreation officer.

Cody, estimated to be a year old, has survived on handouts from passersby, plus a number of illicit deliveries of dog food hauled in by local residents.

Meanwhile, a different story has played out for two other orphaned bear cubs, who were nursed back to health after being found wandering last summer near Lake Tahoe, about 75 miles to the north.

The pair were picked up by volunteers with the Bear League, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the species. The group is headquartered in the small town of Homewood on the western shore of the lake.

After their rescue, the cubs were kept at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe, where they grew fat on the kind of food they might find in the wild -- road kill, berries, acorns, grubs and fruit -- all donated.

By late December, after the cubs had grown from about 20 pounds each to about 100, they had stopped eating and had begun their winter hibernations, said Ann Bryant, co-founder of the Bear League.

Then late last month, the state Department of Fish and Game placed the two cubs, which had been sedated, in a makeshift den -- actually an "igloo" made for dogs -- in a remote forest area north of Truckee.

"We think their chances of survival are good," Bryant said. Fish and Game officials placed breakaway radio collars on the pair so they could be tracked when they woke up.

During their captivity, every effort was made to keep the cubs from human contact so they wouldn't associate people with food.

But for Cody, the association has been made and reinforced.

The Hermit Valley campground where he was discovered is a popular stopover for snowmobile enthusiasts who follow the Ebbetts Pass highway into the high country, where 10- to 20-foot-deep drifts still blanket the landscape.

"Originally, Cody was pretty tentative around people, but they started feeding him and he became less afraid," Clarey said.

State and federal forest officials have tried to discourage the public from feeding the cub, with little success. Last month, U.S. Forest Service information specialist Roy Morris anchored a sign near the restroom in which Cody had been living: "A fed bear is a dead bear."

Within 24 hours, "the sign was gone," he said.

As with the cubs at Tahoe, those who've seen Cody say he appears to weigh 80 to 100 pounds. "He's extremely cute," Clarey said. "He's being killed by kindness."

How the cub lost about half his left rear leg is unknown -- perhaps to a poacher's trap or an attack by a mountain lion or an adult male bear.

The stump of a leg was clearly visible whenever Cody moved about, but it didn't prevent him from climbing nearby conifers whenever he felt threatened.

People who've come to know the bear and his plight are angry at Fish and Game officials who have refused to allow the cub to be captured and taken to the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio.

Sanctuary officials offered to pay all the expenses of capture and transport, according to Bryant.

"The bear must survive on its own," said Patrick Foy, a Fish and Game biologist. "Sick and injured animals are part of the ecosystem and are a source of food for healthy animals."

The department will try to rescue bear cubs that meet certain criteria, said Lorna Bernard, a Fish and Game spokeswoman. A cub is generally eligible if it weighs less than 50 pounds, is captured before Aug. 1 and has not learned to associate food with people, she said.

Unfortunately, Cody doesn't meet the criteria, she said.

Foy said there were no plans to rescue Cody, but the state agency has been working with the Forest Service to close off the Hermit Valley campground in order to coax the cub to leave once his source of food disappears.

The problem with that approach, Cody's supporters say, is that there are no natural food sources at 7,100 feet this time of the year. If the bear survived until the snows melted and the campground reopened, he would probably continue his mooching ways, possibly harming people. Such behavior usually leads to the animal's being killed, Foy and others said.

"I just can't accept that," said Debi Boswell, an animal lover from the Sierra foothill town of Sonora. She is one of the many snowmobilers who have campaigned for Cody.

Boswell said she and her husband were out on their machines Jan. 18 when they stopped at the campground and encountered Cody as he fled the restroom and scampered up a tree. As soon as she saw his legs, she said, she broke down in tears.

Boswell acknowledged leaving food for Cody. "It's awfully hard for a human who has a heart and a mind to turn their back on an animal that's suffering," she said. "Naturally, when you see an animal starving, you want to feed it."

She said she understood that feeding a wild animal could be a death sentence, if the creature associated people with food. But she believes that Cody could enjoy a long and happy life in the Texas sanctuary.

But whether the cub will get a chance to live there, or in the Sierra, is unclear.

Cody hasn't been spotted for a week. No remains have been found, but where he might be is anybody's guess.

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