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Millville's wildlife research center adopts two black bear cubs to rehabilitate

Animal Colony specialist Stacy Brummer made the trip from Springville last week with two unlikely passengers -- a pair of black bears.  The four-month old cubs, Koda and Whiskey, will spend the next few months at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center Predator Research Center in Millville before being released into the wild. 

Biologist Dr. Julie Young said this is the first time the employees will actually rehabilitate a predator and it will be a learning process.

“Utah Division Wildlife Resources came to us and asked if we would do this and I said, ‘yeah but will you pay for the construction for this, it’s expensive,’” Young said. “So we worked it out. I gave the donation of my employees time to build it. Mike, he basically designed and built it over the last few months. I think Mike is happily relieved that it’s all came together.”

When Brummer and PhD student Chris Schultz pulled up to the research center, the rest of the team was restlessly awaiting the arrival of the cubs.

The team calls the cubs’ enclosure the 'no-contact cage,' which means the bears will have very little human contact.

Young and her team have chosen to isolate the cubs, but other rehabilitation centers use a method where the animals have daily interaction with employees.

“Rehab centers around the nation are doing one or the other and when we contacted them to create an operating procedure that we would follow, we found very strong beliefs as to which method worked,” Young said. “We actually want to turn this into a scientific project and raise some one way and raise some the other way and see which method works better. Perhaps the rehab bears that are raised a certain way are the ones causing conflict and we could learn better ways to rehab them so that they know whatever bear they release is a successful bear in the wild.”

The bears can’t see humans for the project to work, but the employees still need to get inside the enclosure to clean and put food in specially enforced dishes. They will use mirrors to see inside the cage and a pole to open a smaller connecting pen that has wall-to-wall blinds.

Once Koda and Whiskey meander inside, the team shuts the door and the bears will be blind to their activity -- they hope.

“They’re going to see humans sometimes and they’re going to recognize [us],” Young said. “We’re going to try to use the same vehicle every time though so they only recognize that one. We all actually have the exact same outfit that we’re going to wear whenever we’re feeding so that they’ll hopefully not associate food with humans, but maybe food with blue T-shirts."

Brummer and Dr. Young know that now the real work starts and there still are a lot of unknowns. They won’t know how effective the rehabilitation was until Koda and Whiskey are back in the wild. But more pressing, they aren’t exactly sure how much food the bears need.

The bears need to triple their 40-pound weight before they can be released in December.

“I can’t believe it,” said Mike Davis, the employee who invested hours to build the enclosure. “It’s done. They are cute. I didn’t think I was going to like them that much but I like them.”

Mackinzie Hamilton started her career in 2009 as a reporter for 610 AM KVNU and staff writer for Cache Valley before joining UPR in 2011. A freshman at Utah State University, she is majoring in Journalism and communications with a minor in vocal performance.