Conservation Outdoors

The Wild Truth: Partnership Comes to the Aid of Orphaned Cubs

Black bear cubs

By Paula Musto

Come spring, it’s not unusual to see mama black bears with two or three adorable cubs in tow. Often, she is guiding them across a road or watchfully ushering them along a hilly path. What a sight! But what if something happens to mom? Survival of orphaned cubs in the wild is highly unlikely.

Thanks to a unique partnership between the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and a local nonprofit, Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, orphaned black bears are getting a second chance. Candler-based Appalachian Wild is one of only two facilities in North Carolina licensed by the state to care for cubs.

“It’s a great privilege to work with these animals,” says Savannah Trantham, executive director of Appalachian Wild, which cares for injured and orphaned wildlife with the goal of releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild. “It is our responsibility to care about our native wildlife. Black bears are not an endangered species, but it’s still important when we have animals in need that we intervene and, when possible, return them to their native habitat.”

Baby season in bear country begins in late January and runs through February. Females deliver their cubs—tiny, blue-eyed creatures as helpless as a human baby—while safely ensconced in warm wintertime dens. The moms nurse and carefully tend to their offspring till the cubs are ready to venture out, usually in late March.

The youngsters stay close to their mothers for the next six to eight months, after which they begin fending for themselves. At 12 months old, the cubs reach yearling status (teen-agers in humans), and within six months they are sent out on their own. It’s time for the female breeding process to begin all over again.

“The mother-cub relationship is crucial,” Trantham says. “As intelligent mammals, bear cubs learn survival skills—what foods to forage, how to climb trees, where predators lurk—from their mother rather than relying on natural instincts alone. If mom goes missing, the little ones need help.”

NCWRC is responsible for the management of bear populations, but growing numbers in urban areas mean more orphans or injured cubs. When a facility at the zoo in Asheboro could no longer handle the burgeoning number of cubs, state wildlife officials approached Appalachian Wild for help.

“Most of the cubs under our care are orphans,” says Justin McVey, a NCWRC wildlife biologist. “Most likely the mother died, often due to being hit by a vehicle on the road, or their cub simply became separated when out exploring its surroundings.” Less frequently, the cub is injured, perhaps, one that could not keep up with his family and became entangled in brush or fencing.

Since 1976, the wildlife commission has been rehabilitating and releasing orphaned/injured cubs through a program that was the first of its kind in the country. Once Appalachian Wild receives the animals, it cares for them with as little human interaction as possible. Staff go to great lengths to avoid bonding with the animals—a wild animal that loses its fear of humans cannot be returned to its native habitat.

Newborn cubs, no larger than a stick of butter, must be bottle fed, but once they open their eyes and begin to move around the animals are encouraged to drink from bowls making them less likely to bond with a human. To help the cubs develop foraging skills, caretakers will often hide food in the animal’s enclosure. When the cubs are able to fend for themselves, Appalachian Wild returns them to the wildlife commission which releases the animals on state-managed lands distant from human development where there are plentiful supplies of their preferred foods—nuts, berries and roots.

McVey says there are around 8,000 black bears in the WNC mountains, with the population growing by approximately 4 percent annually.

Here’s more about these fascinating animals:
• Black bears’ reproductive cycle begins with breeding in early to mid-June. But the pregnancy does not develop until the fall and only if the female’s body is well-fed and in good condition to support offspring. This delayed implantation, called embryonic diapause, is only seen in one other species: kangaroos.

• Trees serve as babysitters for mama bears. As the cubs venture out of the dens with mom, the first stop is often a tree where the young ones are taught to climb and remain safe while mom forages for food. If danger lurks, mama bears will run immediately to the rescue.

• Considered to be one of the most intelligent land animals, bears possess the largest brains relative to their size of any mammal. Their intelligence compares with that of higher primates.

If you see a cub that you think might be in trouble, do not try to save or move it. Instead, contact the NCWRC helpline at 866.318.2401.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, which supports WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network. To donate, visit

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