Debate Over Newtown Bear Cubs Illustrates Division Over Connecticut Wildlife Management

The plight of two little bear cubs who climbed an 80-foot-tall tree after their mother was killed raises a question for Connecticut residents.

What should be the relationship between humans and animals?

The four-month-old orphaned brothers, one 11lb, the other 13lb, now live at New Hampshire’s famed Kilham Bear Center where they will be carefully raised in preparation for a return to the wild.

But their fate initially went in a different direction, said wildlife rehabilitators and members of the state’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, who followed the cubs through the woods after their mother was shot by an off-duty police officer in Newtown.

The mother bear, named Bobbi, was so well known for the past four or five years that residents of Newtown started a Facebook page to track her whereabouts. Bobbi, who was once caught sleeping in a homeowner’s hammock, hadn’t hurt anyone.

When she was killed on May 12, animal advocates initially believed wildlife experts from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were tracking her cubs, said Annie Hornish, Connecticut state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

But there was no sign of DEEP on May 13, Hornish said, as residents of Newtown posted time-stamped photos to social media sites of the cubs climbing or sitting in trees, as their mother taught them to do in times of danger.

That day, reporters went to the neighborhood to talk to the residents of Newtown, and so did the DEEP Environmental Conservation Police Officers, Hornish said.

As of May 14, the cubs were still missing and there was no sign of DEEP looking for them, though Newtown residents continued to do so, Hornish said. So she and members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association went into the woods and cornfields Bobbi was known to frequent to see if they could spot the cubs, she said.

Newtown residents said DEEP officers had no intention of finding the cubs, Hornish said.

“DEEP twice told neighbors to let nature take its course. That’s slang for ‘Let them die,’ Hornish said. “DEEP said the cubs were 25 to 30 pounds, and they were less than half that. They would have died.”

They may not have been able to find enough food, and they certainly wouldn’t be strong enough to fend off predators or experienced enough to avoid being hit by a car, Hornish said, and they would definitely not having enough body fat to survive the cold this fall, she said.

She and zookeepers returned to the forest on May 15 when Laura Simon and others, president of the association, saw the cubs and called DEEP shortly after 4 p.m., Hornish said.

One of the licensed rehabilitators, Deborah Galle, said DEEP showed up five hours later.

“We don’t have any authority in a situation like this; DEEP has all the authority,” Galle said. “The right way is to work with them. So we waited five hours in the woods.”

They were joined by state representative David Michel van Stamford, co-chair of the legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus. Michel said he called other state representatives from his caucus, some of whom joined him in the woods. They contacted a TV station and held a press conference.

Michel said he also called the office of the DEEP commissioner and Governor Ned Lamont’s chief of staff.

“DEEP said they were watching the cubs, but DEEP didn’t know where they were until the rehabilitators found them. If DEEP really wanted to save the cubs, why didn’t they capture them the day the mama bear was shot, when DEEP was on the scene?” said Michel.

“It is only thanks to the work of animal advocates and the people of Newtown that DEEP has taken action,” Hornish said. “This mother bear has been shot. You can’t do that in Connecticut.”

It’s illegal to kill a bear in Connecticut, but the law leaves a lot to interpretation. It states that an owner may kill a bear that poses a threat to people or kill livestock, and a farmer can be licensed to kill a bear that causes damage to property used for farming.

The police officer who shot the bear works for the Ridgefield Police Department. He has been placed on administrative leave while DEEP officials investigate whether the shooting was justified.

Hornish said the police officer keeps livestock at his home in Newtown.

“He’s got free-range chickens,” she said. “It is the duty of owners to protect chickens from wild animals. This was an avoidable situation.”

DEEP spokesman Will Healey said wildlife biologists were not saying they would “let nature take its course” with the orphaned boy.

“Natural biologists believe that wildlife should be given every opportunity to stay in the wild,” he said.

Biologists saw the cubs on the day their mother was killed, rated them healthy and “decided it was in the best interest of the cubs to continue learning to forage for natural food sources in the habitat, free from human intervention,” Healey said.

Wildlife biologists continued to monitor the area for the next three days, he said.

The agency didn’t change its mind about saving the cubs after pressure from the public or the governor’s office, Healey said.

“DEEP determined that it was in the best interest of the cubs that DEEP wildlife biologists sought to capture and rehabilitate due to increased concerns for their safety due to social media attention suggesting actions that would have endangered the cubs. ,” he said.

Hornish said the case of Bobbi the black bear and her cubs illustrates a growing gap between how government agencies like DEEP view wildlife and how the public sees it. She cited a 2018 study, “America’s Wildlife Values: The Social Context of Wildlife Management,” sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which surveyed agencies and citizens in all 50 states.

“The report found that public desire for humane coexistence with wildlife is growing,” Hornish said, showing that “DEEP’s old-fashioned hunting culture is not geared to the public.”

According to the Connecticut section of the study, 98 percent of DEEP employees told the researchers they fished and 74 percent said they hunted.

But of Connecticut residents interested in wildlife-related recreation, only 50 percent said they would fish and 18 percent would hunt. Most — 75 percent — said they enjoy observing wildlife.

Of the general population of Connecticut, only 14 percent are actively fishing and 3 percent say they are active hunters.

Healey said that human-scale surveys are “complicated and difficult to distill into a black-and-white answer. People rarely fall into one category or the other; it is often situationally based.”

That’s true, said Galle, the wildlife rehabilitator. There are hunters who also like to observe wild animals. DEEP employees seem to be in a tight spot, Galle said.

“How do you balance between allowing hunting and rehabilitating wildlife? It’s hard when you have to do both,” she said. “Hunting is where the money is, because of all the licensing costs. There is no money for rehabilitation.”

Michel considers it a conflict of interest.

“DEEP is putting non-native fish in our rivers because fishermen like to catch them, and they’re not doing an environmental study to see how this affects the rest of the ecosystem,” Michel said. “Have we not learned enough from decades of mistakes? We can’t pretend that we manage nature like this.”

The debate will continue. Connecticut is now bear country. Earlier this month, one hung in a tree on Strawberry Hill Avenue, amid heavy traffic and high-rise apartment buildings in downtown Stamford.

Meanwhile, Bobbi’s boys are in New Hampshire, adjusting to life at the Kilham Bear Center, where Ben Kilham has been rehabilitating and releasing injured, orphaned and abandoned black bears for 30 years.

Bobbi’s cubs are “completely normal,” Kilham said, even though they’ve been with their mother for about four months and need 18 months. They will be ready for release around this time next year in the center’s 11-acre wooded enclosure, Kilham said.

He wasn’t surprised to learn that Bobbi roamed Newtown for five years without hurting anyone.

“Her behavior is typical. Black bears are not aggressive; they’re not dangerous,” Kilham said. “They’re looking for food and they acclimate and get used to people very quickly.”

His cousin, Ethan Kilham, helps him care for the cubs that come to the center, he said. Ethan names them based on the places they were found.

“To one of these cubs, he thinks Newtown looks a lot like Newton,” Kilham said. “So maybe Isaac Newton” after the 17th century English physicist who discovered the law of gravity.

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