July 01, 2004

The Bear Whisperers

A gunshot rings through the crisp January air. The sound rebounds off the tall conifer trees of the Russian taiga forest in the Tver Region, 100 miles north of Moscow. A hunter pulls a medium-sized brown bear from its snowy den and finds a litter of newborn cubs within. Feeling remorse, the hunter gathers the cubs and places them in a sack. He then turns to skinning the mother bear.

The next morning, Dr. Valentin Pazhetnov finds a tattered potato sack on his porch steps. He picks up the bundle, calling to his wife, Svetlana. They open the sack to find four bear cubs, each smaller than a grapefruit. Only one of the infants shows signs of life. Three have frozen to death during the night, when the temperature dropped to -20o F. Over the next few weeks, the couple nurses the cub back to life. They feed him warm cow’s milk from a bottle and give him medication for his pneumonia. As the cub grows strong and healthy, the Pazhetnovs teach him essential survival skills and then return him to the wild.

Although hunting female bears is not prohibited in most of Russia, it is generally frowned upon. However, hunters often cannot tell the difference between males and females. Russians sometimes hunt bears for trophies, but more often for fur and meat and sometimes for bile, which is used in eastern medicine. The Pazhetnovs have saved more than 70 bear cubs orphaned by hunters since they began their volunteer bear rescue program in 1974. Both biologists, the Pazhetnovs have studied the bears’ behavior and ecology over the years, gradually developing a methodology for raising bears in captivity and releasing them into the wild.

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