Chowmane’s Cubs

Grizzly sow and triplet cubs
“…Chowmane’s cubs fit this description perfectly. They are lively fellows, studying attentively the surrounding area from between her legs. Still wet from the downpour a little earlier, they look like they have just fallen out of a washing machine. Their dark fur is completely tousled. Chowmane awards me a short glance and then sits down at the water’s edge. A few minutes later she rises again and wades out into the river. Meanwhile, the cubs have become deeply involved in a wrestling match and are oblivious to the fact that their mother is leaving their side. With obvious delight, they throw punches and bite each other’s neck and shoulders. Then, all of a sudden, the fighting ends. The surroundings regain shape and with it the realization that an important element of their world is amiss. Although their mother is only thirty yards away, they start to display signs of distress. Fidgety, they stand up, look in all directions and utter a short, hoarse bark. Without hesitation, Chowmane heads back to shore. It is apparent that the cubs have difficulty identifying their mother visually, as Chowmane’s approach does not arouse the expected enthusiastic response. Instead, a hint of panic descends upon her offspring. Frightened, they run into the tall grass, seeking shelter there. Seconds later their heads pop up above the green blades a few yards away. They peer toward Chowmane, still uncertain whether she represents danger or protection. Not until she huffs and pops her jaw are they certain of her identity, and finally they relax and return to the shore. Another crisis in their young lives is over.

Animals that raise their offspring in relative isolation often display a limited ability to identify their own progeny. The same is also obviously true for the capability of bear cubs to recognize their mother. Cases of cub swapping have been observed repeatedly along salmon streams. Primarily this happens when several family groups with young of equal age fish the same part of the river, and the cubs mingle. With many bears around, the cubs are agitated, nervous and occasionally get confused to the extent that they follow the wrong female upon her departure from the river. Most often the young bears are reunited with their biological mother within a few hours. Occasionally, however, they remain permanently with the foster family. In one instance, a sow was observed with cubs of different ages, one of which was most certainly not her own. In general, the foster mother appears to have little problem with the new addition to her family or the swapping of family members as long as the strange cub keeps calm. Should the adoptee become nervous, timidly bellowing for its true mother, acceptance on the part of the foster parent may turn into lethal intolerance. Upon observing bears for a long time, one truth emerges clearly: there are no absolutes in the realm of animal behavior.

Chowmane’s visit to the river was of short duration. Reunited, the family disappears shortly afterward into the nearby forest. In the absence of fish, there is no point in staying. I have not taken a single picture. But Chowmane will return. In the days ahead, I will get plenty of opportunity to capture her on film. To raise her progeny, as well as to put on a layer of fat for the winter ahead, a sow with cubs has to consume twenty thousand kilocalories per day. Thus, a female can ill afford to ignore a rich resource such as Brooks River during the salmon migration. For me, just seeing an old acquaintance again was worth my wait in the rain. I only hope her attempt to raise offspring will be crowned with success this time…”

An excerpt from Breiter’s book – Bears of Katmai

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