By Cooper Langford Photography by John E. Marriott
What happens when an orphaned grizzly yearling is found wandering aimlessly in spring, near starvation? If that bear is named “Littlefoot,” it gets a second chance.
Littlefoot didn’t look much like a grizzly bear when he arrived at the Northern Lights Wildlife Society’s shelter in Smithers, British Columbia, this past June. At least he didn’t look like a young and healthy one. His coat was ragged, he was listless, and he was severely malnourished, weighing in at less than 20 kilograms — far below the 70 kilograms or more normally seen in bears of his age.
Provincial wildlife officers had found Littlefoot wandering alone around a ski hill near Fernie and surmised he was an orphan. They knew of a mother grizzly with twin cubs that had been active in the area the year before. But she had disappeared in the fall, likely as a result of a fatal run-in with a hunter. Littlefoot was probably her cub and had, somehow, survived his first hibernation alone. Whether he’d make it through to the summer, when berry crops might give him a shot at regaining weight and strength, was another issue.
So the call went out to Northern Lights to ask if they could come and pick him up. It was 1,300 kilometres away, but there were no real alternatives when it came to rehabilitating large mammals, especially bears. Having helped more than 300 of them since its founding in 1990 by Angelika and Peter Langen, Northern Lights was Littlefoot’s best shot.
When the Langens arrived in Fernie, they could easily see Littlefoot was in need of immediate help. But there was good news, too. After tranquilizing the bear, they gave him a thorough examination. Starvation aside, he was in decent shape, free of disease and infections. His dangerous weight loss was most likely due to hibernating alone. Deprived of additional warmth from his mother, he would have burned through his fat reserves before waking in the spring. That, combined with seasonal food scarcity, probably accounted for his weight loss, but that could be reversed.
Still, even with this more optimistic prognosis, a major challenge loomed: would Northern Lights be able to get Littlefoot into good enough shape to be returned to the wild at the end of the summer? That would be a hard deadline, Angelika Langen told Canadian Wildlife in an interview about Littlefoot’s story. A bear reaching maturity would be almost impossible to keep through the winter, given its demands for food and space, so Littlefoot couldn’t stay. And to give him his best shot at survival, he would have to be released when food was most abundant at summer’s end.
And the challenge of the weeks ahead wouldn’t only be fattening him up. “He didn’t just have to gain weight,” Langen says. “ He had to learn.”
The first step, of course, was to get Littlefoot eating again, a job that had to be handled carefully to avoid shocking his system. Langen started feeding him slowly with small amounts of porridge and honey, and a formula designed to mimic mother-bear milk. As Littlefoot’s system adjusted to eating regularly again, Langen started to increase the amount of food he received and to vary his diet with increasing amounts of fruit and proteins. As the young grizzly progressed, Langen also worked at building up his strength. To begin with, she started hiding food around his enclosure — tucking it under logs and stones or burying it in straw — so that Littlefoot would have to work to find it. The more desirable the food, the more difficult she made it to find, so that he would also get used to the idea that he could not expect treats whenever he felt hungry. The program worked as expected: within a few weeks, Littlefoot was like a new bear. “In the beginning, his coat was all shaggy. He was gangly,” Langen says. “But his winter coat came out. A shiny summer coat came in. He got bulky. He looked more like a bear.”
In addition to building up Littlefoot’s weight and strength, Langen also worked on developing his bear behaviours. Some of those goals were accomplished with the features of his enclosure. The area was not overly large and was surrounded by a three-metre fence, to prevent Littlefoot from getting too comfortable and not developing the urge to leave. Inside, however, Littlefoot was provided with activities to help a young and growing bear, including piles of logs and branches for tossing around. Langen also kept a water tub filled throughout the day, so that Littlefoot could splash around, as wild bears do, and keep cool.
One of the most important behaviours that needed to be developed, though, was a healthy distrust of other humans. In her own work to care for Littlefoot, Langen and a co-worker took on the role of surrogate-mother figures, providing food and safety. If any other person, a vet or a wildlife officer, for example, came to his enclosure, every effort was made to ensure the experience was negative for the bear. “That’s important,” Langen says. “When we let bears go, we don’t want them to think that every human who crosses their path is a friend.”
As the summer wore on, Littlefoot transformed from a scraggly orphan into a healthy young bear. An increasingly frustrated one, too. He became rambunctious and moody, often digging around his enclosure. These were good signs, Langen says. They showed Littlefoot was ready to return to the wild.
That day came in September. Langen and the conservation officer who first found Littlefoot, along with others, drove him to a secluded spot near Cranbook, B.C. When he was released, he wandered over to a nearby pile of logs, turned a few over and started digging. He didn’t seem to realize that he wasn’t in an enclosure. Then, something up a hillside caught his eye. “All of a sudden, it was like he realized there was no fence,” Langen says. “Then he just took off.”
It was a bittersweet moment, Langen admits. But she was also happy and confident that Littlefoot’s chances for survival were strong. So far, that seems to be bearing out. Littlefoot returned to the wild wearing a radio collar. Its tracking shows he’s behaving like a healthy juvenile bear. As this issue of Canadian Wildlife rolls out, Littlefoot is no doubt preparing for hibernation again — and the prospect of a much better spring, next time around.