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Local black bear gets second chance thanks to community of wildlife specialists

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Photos by PAWS Wildlife Center

Female black bear recovering at PAWS Wildlife Center. Photo credit: PAWS Wildlife Center
Sometimes wild animals need a little help. In this case, a particularly big wild animal needed more than a little help. Today, this female American black bear is resting comfortably, healing and recovering at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood—but a few months ago her very survival was dependent on the cooperation of several partners dedicated to wildlife conservation.

In early December, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) received a call about a female bear that had been hit by a car in Poulsbo, Washington, east of Seattle. Black bears aren’t often seen in our region at that time of year because they typically den up for the winter months, but they do occasionally wake to move around or change denning sites. It took several days of searching but wildlife officers were finally able to locate and immobilize the bear, which was initially reported to be dragging her hind legs but seemed able to move slowly on all four by the time officers found her. They brought her to PAWS, which is the only rehabilitation facility in the state approved to work with bears.

An exam at PAWS revealed the extent of this bear's injuries. Photo credit: PAWS Wildlife Center
An exam and x-rays at PAWS revealed that the 260-pound female suffered multiple rib and pelvic fractures. PAWS veterinarians, including Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen, also suspected the bear was pregnant based on the time of year and the images they saw on the x-rays. While PAWS is able to provide high-quality care for a multitude of species, the nature of this bear’s injuries in conjunction with her size and reproductive state would require the skill of specialty trained veterinary surgeons—and a much larger operating room than the one at PAWS.

In the following days, the staff at PAWS contacted a number of local specialists and put together a team of professionals from Woodland Park Zoo and the Veterinary Specialty Center (VSC) of Seattle. Both organizations were willing to donate their time, skills and facilities to help this bear. Our zoo staff offered the use of a large operating room, access to radiologic and ultrasound imaging, the assistance of two of our highly trained veterinary technicians, and the use of our zoo ambulance to safely transport the bear to and from the zoo. 

The PAWS team gave the female black bear an exam and took x-rays to assess her condition. Photo credit: PAWS
Director of Animal Health at Woodland Park Zoo, Dr. Darin Collins explained, a shared mission to save wild animals: “Saving wildlife takes more than a single organization. It takes a vital community—all of us—to save wild animals and their wild places. As a conservation institution, Woodland Park Zoo plays an important role in caring for wildlife at the zoo and helping to ensure the future of wildlife in urban and natural environments.” 

A board-certified surgeon and a team of veterinary technicians from VSC performed the surgery to repair the fractured pelvis and one of their board-certified radiologists evaluated the x-rays and performed an abdominal ultrasound at the time of surgery to determine the bear’s reproductive status. 

Up close with a big bear paw! Photo credit: PAWS Wildlife Center
The VSC team explained their eagerness to donate their services. “It is with great pleasure that the VSC surgery team was able to team up with PAWS to provide advanced surgical treatment for the black bear,” said VSC board certified Veterinary Surgeon Mark Garneau. “Our team always takes a special interest in the PAWS wildlife cases and the bear is a special favorite,” added Tori McKlveen, VSC board certified Veterinary Radiologist. 

Black bear leaves PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, to go to Woodland Park Zoo for surgery. Photo credit: PAWS
On December 13, the PAWS veterinary team immobilized the bear and prepared her for transport to the zoo for surgery. The zoo's animal health ambulance is outfitted with a fully functioning anesthesia machine, which allowed the veterinary team to keep the bear safely anesthetized during transport. Once they arrived at the zoo, another set of x-rays were taken for pre-operative assessment and the bear was prepared for surgery. It took the efforts of three veterinarians and six veterinary technicians from the three institutions to keep the bear anesthetized, monitor her vital signs and secure the pelvic fragments into proper alignment with two metal plates. 

Specialists from several groups came together to perform surgery on the injured bear. Photo credit: PAWS

Following surgery another set of x-rays was taken to verify the alignment of the pelvis and the veterinary radiologist performed an abdominal ultrasound. The purpose of the ultrasound was to determine if the bear was pregnant and to evaluate abdominal organs for any signs of internal trauma related to the incident. The ultrasound did not show any evidence of trauma to organs such as the spleen or urinary bladder. The bear did appear to have been pregnant but no fetal heart beat was found at that time and a viable fetus was not identified. Fortunately, there was no evidence of infection in the uterus and the team agreed that further intervention was not necessary.

After surgery at Woodland Park Zoo, the sedated bear is wheeled back to the zoo ambulance for the trip back to PAWS where she would begin her recovery process. Photo credit: PAWS

The bear was returned to PAWS in the ambulance that evening and recovered in a straw bed in a secure enclosure. PAWS veterinary staff stayed the evening and monitored her closely to ensure she recovered from anesthesia safely. That same evening, the camera in the enclosure recorded her standing and gingerly using all four legs, which was great news.

One of the biggest challenges the PAWS team faced after the procedure was the bear’s reluctance to eat and her slowed metabolism, which is typical of American black bears in winter months. This made it harder to give her medications by mouth, although her natural inactivity did keep her quiet enough to allow adequate bone healing. 
The female black bear is resting and recovering at PAWS. Photo credit: PAWS

By New Year’s Day, the bear was eating and walking between periods of sleep. On January 16, the PAWS care team, along with Garneau and McKvleen, re-examined the bear to ensure proper healing. “We were all happy with her progress,” said Rosenhagen, who is still overseeing her care at PAWS. “It was important to get an up-close look to ensure the incision was healing and there was no sign of infection. We also checked range of motion and that also looked good,” Rosenhagen continued. In the last couple months, Rosenhagen and the PAWS team have been very optimistic about this bear's future.

“She owes her new lease on life to a team of animal experts who said, “Yes!” when asked for help,” says Jennifer Convy, Director of PAWS Wildlife Center. “The bear’s resilience and the heroic effort of the PAWS Wildlife Center, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Woodland Park Zoo, and the Veterinary Specialty Center have provided her the best hope for a second chance at a life in the wild,” said Convy. 

The staff at PAWS is optimistic about this bear's future. Photo credit: PAWS
While at PAWS, the bear has access to two enclosures stocked with fresh straw and greenery. Every effort is being made to minimize noise and other human disturbances, but the dedicated team keeps a close watch over their patient via large video monitors.

With every week that passes, the PAWS team believes it's more likely that this bear could make a full recovery and will be released back to the wild this spring. In the meantime, they're providing steady care and feeding her a diet that mimics the kind of nutrients she'd be getting in the wild. Right now, her meals consist of a mix of dog food, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and a variety of proteinsand PAWS staff often place her treats inside greenery or cardboard for a nice scratch and forage session. 

The PAWS staff say their guest seems to be very curious and they enjoy watching this incredible bear continue to recover. The staff also let us know that she really, really seems to enjoy peanut butter and suet!