UPDATE 3/31/2017: 

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced that Elkhorn will be joining another small cub at a rehabilitation facility in Washington. A female bear cub arrived at ODFW’s doors on March 30, after its den was disturbed by a brush-clearing operation. In that case, the mother bear was believed to have abandoned the cub due to the continuing disturbance, and it was determined that she was unlikely to return.

Both Elkhorn and the female cub were of similar age, making them great candidates to be rehabilitated together. "This is exactly what I'd hoped would happen with [Elkhorn]," says Corey Hancock, who found the male cub earlier this week.

Elkhorn has been treated for mild pneumonia, but is doing very well. The cubs will be rehabilitated with as little human contact as possible, in the hopes that they may be released back to the forests of Oregon.

"We’ll receive these cubs as unhabituated and year-old bears sometime between March and June of 2018,” says ODFW veterinarian Dr Colin Gillin. "They’ll be between 100 and 150 pounds at the time of release.”

Image: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife 


When an Oregon hiker helped an ailing bear cub he found alone in the woods this week, he wasn't prepared for the backlash that would follow. The rescue has reignited a complicated debate: just what is the "right" thing to do when it comes to interfering with nature?  

Image: Corey Hancock/used with permission

Photographer Corey Hancock has been exploring Oregon's woods for over 20 years, but a recent hike took an unexpected turn. After heavy rain thwarted a trip to photograph waterfalls near the Santiam River trail, Hancock started back on the two-mile trek to his car. Along the way, he stumbled across a four-month-old black bear cub, seemingly alone and in poor condition, just a few feet off the trail crest.  

"I was in shock," he recalls. "But initially I got a little scared. I thought I would get attacked by a momma bear somewhere."

Not wanting to interfere right away, Hancock hid his gear bag in the brush and backed off to a spot where he could keep an eye on the animal while scouting for other bears. "I didn't see any tracks or sign, but I waited," he says. "I watched it from a distance, and the cub wasn't breathing. It was lying on its back, pretty much motionless and getting rained on. I saw its belly rise just once. During the last couple of minutes, it stopped moving altogether."

That's when Hancock made the controversial call to take the cub back to his car, where he could drive to reach phone reception and figure out what to do. "It was getting dark, so I took my flannel shirt off, wrapped him up and just ran. I had no cell service, so I had to get to the highway. I immediately posted a photo of the cub on Facebook and asked for help and guidance."

Hancock posted this photograph on his Facebook page, asking friends for any advice on where to take the cub. Image: Corey Hancock/used with permission

Help came from the team at the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center, who told Hancock to bring the bear to their facility.

"In the car, the cub still wasn't moving," Hancock recalls. "I gave him a few little rescue breaths and watched his belly come out. And he just didn't do anything. I talked to him, jiggled him, tickled his feet – anything to get a reaction. At that point I thought, 'He's dead. I'm not going to save him. What am I doing here? Why am I taking a dead bear cub out of the woods?'" 

Hancock continued to pull off the road to administer rescue breaths every few miles, and eventually, things started to turn around. The tiny animal took a shallow breath, then another. Once at Turtle Ridge, the cub – who has since been nicknamed "Elkhorn" – was put on a heating pad and given several rounds of subcutaneous fluids. 

Once at Turtle Ridge, the bear was put on a heating pad and given a warm blanket. Image: Corey Hancock/used with permission

"As he warmed up he started breathing a bit better," says Hancock. "He was fighting to survive. I stayed there for about a hour. One of their staff members planned to stay up with him all night to watch him and try to get more fluids into his system." 

When Hancock called the next day, Turtle Ridge staff informed him that the cub had survived the touch-and-go night, and was now showing signs of recovery: vocalising, and attempting to stand and move around.

Images: Corey Hancock/used with permission

The story was covered widely by local news outlets, and that publicity alerted the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to the bear's presence at Turtle Ridge. 

"I went down to say bye to him, and he was growling and biting his cage – just a little ball of fury. He was acting like a normal bear," adds Hancock. "ODFW got all my information about where I found him, and they plan to send one of their biologists to the area to look for a possible den, or any sign of the mother."

Blood tests will also be performed on the cub to check for diseases or any other health conditions that may have led the bear's mother to abandon it.

Although Hancock's actions possibly saved the cub's life, he's also received some negative attention in the days since his story made the news. Much of the criticism has focused on the issue of interference with wildlife. In an official statement, ODFW also emphasised that the best course when dealing with wild animals that appear abandoned is to minimise contact and call wildlife authorities.

"If you come across ... any young animal alone in the wild, do not remove it. Call ODFW, OSP or a wildlife rehabilitator for advice," they said. "We can't speculate about what may or may not have happened with this cub, but wildlife will always do better when left alone than if people pick it up. Unfortunately, this cub may never get to live a natural life in the wild. We don't know for sure that this cub was orphaned."

That statement also sparked its share of heated discussion online, and the debate is understandable: it pits our natural inclination to help a struggling animal against guidelines designed to keep both humans and wildlife safe. And yet authorities insist the only surefire way to prevent well-intentioned reactions from turning into serious mishaps is to keep our distance. When tourists in Yellowstone National Park loaded a lone baby bison into their car last year in order to save it from the cold, the final outcome was grim.

Meanwhile, after its initial response to Hancock's rescue, ODFW clarified its position in a series of Facebook comments

[There's] no judgement here; it's understandable that humans want to help wildlife that looks like it's imperilled ... The point is that a baby bear has a much better chance being left in the woods even if it appears to be abandoned than it does when someone removes it from the wild ... Baby animals are often left by their mothers for periods of time while they forage or in order to protect them. This is very classic animal behaviour. But it also leads to too many people picking up baby animals, because they speculated, and then those animals have to make the really tough transition from human care to the wild without the benefit of having their mothers there to teach them how to survive. Not every animal is able to be released, and released animals that are habituated to humans can have a tough go of it. 

The rescued bear cub appears to be doing well for now, however. By the time the youngster reached ODFW, their veterinary team was satisfied with its condition. "[Whether it's released] is dependent on how the cub does." 

Staff at Turtle Ridge, meanwhile, have spoken out in support of Hancock's decision to bring the cub in. The team notes that the animal's level of dehydration – an indicator of how well an infant has been feeding – led them to believe it had been without its mother for some time.

"The cub was malnourished and lethargic," they said in a statement. "His hydration and body temperature finally normalized around 2:00 a.m., nearly 12 hours [after he was brought to our facility]. We absolutely believe he wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for Corey. It's a miracle he even made the journey to our center."

Elkhorn as he was found in the woods. Officials at both ODFW and Turtle Ridge have stated the bear was dehydrated, hypothermic and small for his age. Image: Corey Hancock/used with permission

Hancock also stands by his decision to move the cub given the extenuating circumstances.

"I think most of the backlash is from ignorance – most people don't know the full story, they get a quick glimpse ... that's been cut apart by the news. They see some guy in Oregon, pulling a cub that's cold out of the woods from its mother. They don’t know what really happened. I've never saved a life, and I don't regret doing it. I made an educated guess: it was getting dark, he was in the rain, and he wasn't moving."

UPDATE 3/29/2017: ODFW biologists have confirmed that this cub was hypothermic, dehydrated and small for its age. They surmise that he either crawled out of his den, or that heavy rains caused the den to fill with water. When this happens, mother bears will opt to move their cubs. Exactly how long the cub was alone (and if it had been abandoned) remains up for debate, but another hiker reported seeing it on the path hours before Hancock's encounter. As of this update, the cub is doing well. 

UPDATE 3/30/2017: After speaking with ODFW and checking on Elkhorn's progress, Hancock released the following statement: 

"I can't mention names but the people I've spoken with at ODFW and the State Police have Elkhorn's best interests in mind and have been great to work with. Some of you ask and send me articles about an investigation and possible fines. I assure you, everything is ok and I'm not going to jail. I was told I could continue to receive updates on his condition and disposition through the ODFW, and I’ve been taking advantage of that offer.

My understanding currently is that Elkhorn’s health is continuing to improve. Now the greater concern has to do with what will happen, in the long-term, to this cub. Because of the complications and dangers involved, it’s unlikely that they’ll attempt to reintegrate Elkhorn into his family, even if they were somehow able to locate the missing mother. Chances are, Elkhorn is going to end up in some kind of facility, whether it be a zoo, or a wildlife sanctuary. I learned that there are some rather nice places where the ODFW could re-wild a rescue bear. None of them are in the Willamette Valley, where he’s from, but that hardly matters. My hope is only that Elkhorn be allowed to survive, and to thrive, somewhere among us… preferably a place where he can have a rich life experience.

This is the primary reason why I’m sharing the details of my story. The more public attention we can direct toward Elkhorn, the more favorable his ultimate disposition is likely to be. For now, the ODFW is taking good care of him in his recovery. They’re restricting Elkhorn from human contact, as much as possible, including visits from the press. That way, the chances of him imprinting on any of us will be minimal. Meanwhile, they’re exploring his options. Perhaps, through the sharing of this story, someone out there who’s involved in one of the better sanctuaries, or who has extensive expertise in re-wilding black bear cubs, will offer Elkhorn an invitation.

The other reason I’m sharing this story, of course, is for those many people who have expressed their support for the decisions I made in that moment. I want you to know and see what actually occurred. Our relationship with wildlife is not simple, and it’s difficult for me to agree with protocols, regulations, or opinions that ask us to ignore one of our most beautiful virtues… our ability to not only empathize with other species in their suffering, but to also intervene and help them. When I chose to pick up baby Elkhorn, I ran because – in the moment – it felt like there was a big risk involved. I was, in essence, wagering my life to help that cub. And I would do it again. I bet most of you would too.

Thanks again for showing Elkhorn your support. Let my story be an educational piece regardless of what you feel is right or wrong." 

You can read a first-hand account of the story in Hancock's Facebook post, here.


Top header image: Shutterstock