A Beary Restless Hibernation

Large brown bear walking through snow

A Note from Susan: Every bear (at least that I have spent time with) has a distinct persona, often rather clearly, same as with people. Some are sweet, some have a wicked sense of humor, some are cautious, some are bold. Each has their own style of eating and particular tastes (Pears YES! Carrots NO! Pears NO! Carrots YES!). We have gone so far as to list on a whiteboard each one’s preferences and dislikes to keep track (tastes change seasonally as well). We also have to be careful of jealousies—“His mango is riper than mine!” Seems to apply universally.

I have described our bears’ different personalities in the book Whispers from the Wild, in the Bear chapter (a long one). But the stories keep evolving since the book was written, and Celeste does a good job of describing further details of Bramble’s rather unusual winter. Enjoy!

In the past, Bramble, one of our beautiful brown bears, slept soundly through the bitter winter months. His den was solitude, quiet, hidden away from the pesky rays of sunlight that might otherwise leak into the cozy, straw-filled hideaway and stir him from his slumber. Occasionally, though, a shiny bear nose would peek out of the narrow mouth of the den, then a stout, whiskered muzzle, and finally, a large sleepy face would emerge, coarse strands of chestnut fur clinging to bits of straw, creating a most glorious display of bedhead.

Once he had finally finished freeing his ample frame from the den, he would indulge in a much needed, most satisfying stretch before sleepwalking over to his water basin for a drink. Disapproving of the frigid air and the thick layer of crusty snow that still blanketed everything, he would make his way back to the warmth of his bed, not to be seen again for a considerable amount of time. The land needed its rest, as did Bramble, and when the warmth of spring melted away the snow and allowed for precious new life to erupt from the thawed soil, Bramble would finally crack open his eyes and restart the annual cycle.

Unfortunately, this year Bramble’s seasonal cycle was neither magnificent nor restful. We had high hopes he would have a pleasant final winter in this familiar space before the big move into the new enclosures and gardens in the spring. But due to several factors, an easy hibernation was not written in the stars for Bramble.

It started out small. He woke up once or twice a week for the first month of hibernation. It takes the bears time to fully settle into their long nap, plus it’s normal for bears to wake up occasionally throughout the winter months. What was abnormal was the unseasonably warm weather, which resulted in the bears in the wild becoming considerably more active than in recent years. With warmth comes melt, with melt comes an easier opportunity to find food. If food is available and you’re a bear trying to keep as much weight on as possible, it only makes sense to feed while there’s still accessible nourishment. Even if that means foraging around in the middle of December.

We remained hopeful that he would settle soon enough, until sightings of his brother, Ramble became fewer and fewer, and sightings of Bramble became excessive. Once or twice a week increased to nearly daily. Confusion set in for the humans of Earthfire. If the heat was an epidemic that was stirring bears all around, then why was Ramble sleeping so soundly? Why wasn’t the warmer weather plaguing his ability to hibernate the way it was his brother’s? We soon noticed that his enclosure in the back was receiving significantly less sunlight than Bramble’s up front. As a result, it was cooler in his neck of the woods, and thankfully, the fluctuating temperatures remained just right for our sleepy Ramble bear. One explanatory factor, at least.

With the noisy construction of the new bear gardens happening behind where he would normally sleep, we had decided to graduate Bramble to a fresh den up front, away from the clatter of machinery and the roaring of diesel. But there was also the unavoidable noise of Earthfire’s daily workings. We couldn’t control the thunderous plopping of slushy snow sloughing off of the roofs, or the constant drip, drip, dripping of water that accompanies that, but we did try to minimize noise as much as possible. Our efforts were mostly in vain. With the necessary cleaning chores (not a quiet process), the handling of the wolves (also not quiet), and the deafening chorus howl of our wolf pack reverberating throughout the sanctuary—calling the foxes, coyotes, and Susan’s German Shepherd, Shota, to sing along—it was just loud. A bear’s ability to hear, although not quite as impressive as their sense of smell, is still over twice the sensitivity of human hearing. To a bear struggling to sleep, it was surely a bit of a cacophony. Not usually a problem in past years, but this year seemed different.

Bramble remained restless, until one day we spotted him munching away on the hay he had been given for bedding. A bad sign. In the days prior, we had noticed him chewing on snow and bits of ice, but this solidified our concerns. It was far too early in the season for him to be hungry, and he was definitely not skinny. But he was stirring, as the bears in the wild were. Susan reached out to the vet and asked for her suggestions about what to do under the unusual circumstances of climate change. Should we feed him? Do we dare start up his digestive system this early? The vet recommended that, if he was hungry and asking for food, the best bet was to oblige him, which was in line with what our rather soft hearts wanted to do. Looking at a hungry bear, no matter the reason, is just too sad.

We went ahead and offered him a few leaves of kale, just to test his appetite. He accepted greedily, devouring each one with haste. He looked back at us once he had finished, brown bear eyes filled with further want. We decided it would be okay to offer him an apple and a pear next—nothing more than that, though, as we didn’t want to upset his stomach. He made quick work of the fruit, crunching loudly enough that I worried Ramble would wake up and want similar treatment. Fortunately, he slept through it, and once Bramble had finished his snack, he trudged through the snow and climbed back inside his den.

This routine continued. He would often wake up early in the morning to the sound of the howling wolves, make his way over to the pool yard, and then stare demandingly through the window of the kitchen. We kept his snacks small but consistent. As we became more comfortable with what he could and couldn’t eat this early on, we began to add more variety to his diet. While it was originally just lettuce and kale, we added avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, and even carrots to the list of foods we could give him daily. Now that spring is here, and the season of rest has come to an end, Bramble’s appetite continues to grow, and his miniature snacks are becoming insufficient. He receives feedings several times a day and is now allowed soaked kibble and chicken. Ramble is waking up as well, still on a restricted diet of strictly organic romaine lettuce, much to his dismay.

As the boys (mostly Ramble) finish the slow process of waking up, we are reminded that “moving day” is just around the corner. Do they sense our anticipation? The excitement?

Perhaps Bramble is akin to a child, tossing and turning in bed, eager to wake up and start his next adventure.

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