After the report of the mother’s death, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele tracked down one cub, still lingering in a tree near its mother’s body. The bear was captured, tranquilized and flown to Anchorage by Northern Air Cargo to be resettled at the conservation center. About a month later, another orphaned cub was captured and the process repeated. Soon Taquoka, (Alutiiq for “bear”) the male, had Shaguyik, (an Inupiaq word meaning “ghost or shadow”) a female, as a companion.
It was a highly unusual set of circumstances: A live bear hadn’t been taken off Kodiak for resettlement for a decade. Two in a month is extraordinary, Schaul says, especially because most bears are already hibernating for winter by November or December.
Now it’s conservation biologist his job to acclimate the bears to their new life. It’s a bittersweet task: about 90 percent of all bear cub interventions happen because of a bear-human interaction that ends the mother’s life, he says. Many of these, he believes, are preventable.
Now, Taquoka and Shaguyik call a large, fenced natural habitat that includes hills, hiding spots and a small cabin structure home. Schaul is using what’s called a “free contact” method to train the bears to accept direction from humans, interacting without a protective barrier but from a safe distance. Though the bears are Golden Retriever–sized and look cuddly, they have long, sharp claws and weigh around 80 lbs. They also move quickly.
“I want to build a rapport with them so they can learn to live with people,” he says.
Distinct personalities have begun to emerge, too. Taquoka is more fearful and likely to flee. Shaggy, as Shaguyik has been nicknamed, is prone to challenging staff members. But both bears are making steady progress – as well as learning to get along with each other.
“They’ve had a few small skirmishes over food, but other than that they’ve been fantastic companions,” Schaul says.
The bears eat a staple diet of dog food supplemented by fruits and vegetables donated by an Anchorage Costco. Grapes are a favorite, Schaul says.
“It’s an ideal treat,” he says. “If I gave them lettuce it would be scattered all over the place.”
It’s still unclear where their permanent home will be. One possibility is a wildlife conservation center in Sweden.
“It’s kind of unknown at this point,” says conservation center communications manager Ethan Tyler. “There are a lot of places that are interested in them.”
Wherever their future home, the pair will likely remain at the conservation center in Portage for at least a year. That’s a good thing, says Tyler.
“They had a pretty big disturbance go on,” he says. “It will take some time to adjust.”