December 16, 2013
The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro is putting the finishing touches on its new black bear rehabilitation center. The new enclosure is nearly 25 times larger than the current one.
"This facility, part of it here behind me, is a state of the art facility for raising orphaned or injured cubs, black bear cubs, and caring for them until they are able to return to the wild fully prepared to have life as a successful bear," said Ed Clark, President and Co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
Up until recently, the bears were housed in a cement building. Now, the will have an open air, real forest enclosure to explore until they are ready for release next year.
"This facility will give us the opportunity to put these bears into a natural environment where they can interact with the things they'll find in the forest: trees, bushes, shrubs, insects, what have you," Clark said. "Their food will be placed all throughout the facility so they will actually have to forage and go out and look for what they're going to find and eat. They'll learn to use their sense of smell, to dig if appropriate, and when they go back to the wild in mid-January, they'll be wild bears able to fend for themselves."
The three half acre pens will allow for the center to take care of the bears from a very young age all the way until they are ready to be released. This is the only facility of its kind in Virginia.
This year has been a record breaking year at the center. Twenty-five black bears have come to the center for rehabilitation and rearing. This number is positive proof that the black bear population has rebounded after a dramatic population decrease in Virginia. This number is also negative because with a larger population, more bears are likely to become orphaned or injured.
This year has been particularly difficult for bears because food in the forest has been hard to find. The bears have been venturing to places outside of the forest where there is more human activity. If they get hurt along the way or orphaned then found by someone, they are taken to the wildlife center for care.
"They need to be cared for properly," said Clark. "They need to get the right food, the right nurture, the right development. Then, they need to be put back into the wild knowing in fact that they are wild animals."
Many of the bears arrived at the center as cubs that weighed only a few pounds. Now, they all need more space as they are approaching one hundred pounds each.
"This enclosure is about two and a half acres total. As you can see, there are ten foot fences along the inside of each of the yards," Clark explained. "There are three of these roughly half acre yards that are just parts of the forest enclosed behind the fence."
The fence is made so the bears can't climb out. There are also denning structures where the bears can create a home.
"Once they get into this enclosure, after they go up every tree they can find, the first thing they are going to do is dive right into that hole and make themselves a nest," Clark said.
The bears will drink from a freeze-proof watering bowl and have a swimming hole to keep clean and stay cool.
The features of the enclosure also includes two observation towers where the staff can feed and observe the bears. The towers are also equipped with critter cams so the center and the public can watch the bears roam.
"The cameras are so high in resolution that we will be able to look right back into those den structures and see what the bears are doing, even inside, even in the dark," Clark said.
The facility hasn't been cheap. The center has invested $450,000. Almost half of that has been funded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but this facility is a one of a kind in Virginia.
"We have a very, very high success rate with otherwise healthy orphans," Clark explained. "In fact, of the healthy orphans bears we have this year, all of them are still with us and all of them will be released. When they get into the wild, they will have to fend for themselves just like any other wild animal, but we plan to give them the best shot that they have."
The center is currently taking care of 17 black bears. They will be transferred to the new pen sometime in the next couple of weeks, weather permitting. Then, released back into the wild come the new year.
There is a dedication ceremony at the center on Tuesday, December 17.
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