Frequently Asked Questions on Black Bear Cub Rehabilitation

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is the only facility in Virginia that is permitted to treat Black Bears. Each year, the Center admits dozens of injured and orphaned Black Bears, most of them cubs that need assistance. When admitted as cubs, bears typically spend close to a year at the Center, growing and learning the skills they need to survive in the wild.

This video offers an overview of the Black Bear rehabilitation process at the Center (and features the bear cubs admitted in 2022 and released as yearlings in 2023):

How old are the cubs that are cared for at the Wildlife Center?

In Virginia, Black Bear sows typically give birth in mid- to late January. According to a study by Kim Echols in Virginia, Black Bear sows have been documented giving birth from December 19 to February 22 – with a median date of January 17. While the Center occasionally admits a very young cub in January or February, most cubs are admitted in April and May when they are starting to emerge from dens with their mothers.

How long as the Center been rehabilitating cubs?

The Center has been receiving bear cubs for decades, though did not have adequate space to provide long-term cub care. In 2013, the Center constructed a special Black Bear Complex, designed for a more robust and comprehensive Black Bear cub rehabilitation program. You can read more about our past cub seasons in our featured stories. Our cub group of the year has ranged in size from four individuals up to 19 cubs at one time!

What do bears eat at the Wildlife Center?

Bears are omnivores; in the wild, they eat a variety of plant and animal matter, including insects, fish, carrion, leaves, berries, nuts, and fruit. Cubs nurse from their mothers throughout the spring, summer, and fall; they also begin to sample “adult” foods when they emerge from their dens in the spring and begin traveling with their mothers. Bears, especially yearlings, will also look for “easy food” – and will raid bird feeders, unsecured trash cans, and pet food.

At the Wildlife Center, young cubs admitted in the spring receive special formula that is appropriate for bears – bear milk is very rich in fat. The staff attempts to transition the cubs from bottle-feeding to bowl-feeding as quickly as possible, to reduce the need for human contact. The young cubs eat “mush bowls” several times a day; these meals consist of thickened bear formula, softened puppy chow, and small pieces of soft fruit.

The cubs are weaned in the summer, and they gradually begin eating more of an adult bear meal, consisting of dog food, seeds, fruits, vegetables, leaves, insects, fish, and nuts. The rehabilitation staff often incorporate food enrichment items for the bear cubs; this helps teach them how to forage naturally. Food enrichment items may include commercially available insects hidden in rotten logs or under rocks to teach the cubs how to tear apart logs or flip rocks, natural browse [branches] to teach them how to develop a search image for berries/leaves/bark, and meat [dead mice, chicks, fish] hidden in wild animal skulls or cardboard carcasses to simulate eating carrion.

During the winter when bears are less active, food is typically not delivered every day.

Won't so much human contact cause problems for the bears? Will they be used to humans?

While no one can replace the care a bear sow provides to her young, bear rehabilitation can be successful, particularly with well-researched and planned procedures and protocols that the Center staff adhere to. Because bear cubs are closely bonded with their mothers in the wild, the young cubs are allowed interaction with a limited number of caregivers during bottle-feeding. The cubs do recognize and bond with these caregivers. Other staff, students, and volunteers are not allowed to see and interact with the bear cubs, to ensure that the bears don't get used to many different people. The very limited number of people who care for the bears seems to be one critical key to successful rehabilitation, which is why no one other than the four staff rehabilitators sees the cubs.

The Wildlife Center staff are committed to learning best practices and regularly consult and collaborate with other professionals in the field. John Beecham of International Fund for Animal Welfare, Lisa Stewart of Black Bear Solar Institute, and Tracy Leaver of Woodlands Wildlife Refuge are all well-respected colleagues, and we are familiar with their Black Bear rehabilitation programs – each facility has had remarkable success with raising and release of the species. The Center also had the opportunity to consult with renowned bear expert and author Else Poulsen in the summer of 2015. Else came to the Center and offered a variety of recommendations on our Black Bear rehabilitation program.

According to John Beecham, “Allowing cubs raised in captivity to socialize with other cubs may be the single most important factor in reducing the degree of their habituation. When human contact with the cubs is severely restricted after weaning, cubs will show less interest in interactions with their caretakers.” Lisa Stewart advises, “In the spring, you will notice that the cubs still accept human interaction (they enjoy being held while taking their bottles), and there is not much risk at this point (up to five months of age) of causing habituation as long as the interaction with humans is short during the feeding period and the comfort received after feeding is from their own kind.”

Where do the bears live at the Center?

The Center has three different types of enclosures that can house bears.

The Center's Bear Pen was constructed in 2003, and was designed for adult, injured Black Bears. This large concrete block structure has three large chambers, each 12’ long x 8’ wide x 10’ high. Each chamber has an attached den that measures 4’ long x 8’ wide x 3.5’ high; a guillotine door allows the staff to enclose the bear in the den so they can have access to the main chamber. The concrete block walls are sturdy enough to hold a several-hundred-pound Black Bear, and the sliding doors between the pens and the den area ensure human safety – the adult bears can be contained or “shifted” so that the rehabilitation staff can safely clean the enclosures during a bear’s hospitalization. This type of enclosure is also ideal for contagious bears with mange since it can be thoroughly disinfected.

Bear Pen

In the summer of 2013, a Large Mammal Isolation enclosure was constructed for growing bear cubs. This isolation building is 40’ x 16’, with a 16’ square pen at each end of the structure. The middle section is divided into two parts: an 8’ x 8’ antechamber (acting as a double door system) and a 4’ x 8’ connector between the two bear enclosures. The connecting chamber has guillotine doors and is used to shift bears back and forth and to consolidate bears to be anesthetized.

This facility meets the Center’s need for specialized, open-air isolation and quarantine facilities for new bears being admitted, or for current patients that need to be separated from the main bear cub population. Based on Else Poulsen's recommendations, this is also a preferred enclosure for housing bear cubs who are still being bottle-fed several times a day.

Large Mammal Enclosure

In 2013, the Center also constructed the Black Bear Complex. This two-acre complex, completed in January 2014, meets the need for long-term, outdoor enclosures for healthy young bear cubs. This complex consists of three large “yards” of about 1/2 acre each, all inside a 15-foot, double-fenced secure perimeter. While the plans pictured here show a large facility with straight-line fences, the actual individual yards have curved walls that meander slightly through the forest. This was done to preserve as many large trees as possible.

Bear Enclosure Diagram

A 40’ x 300” entrance area gives staff access to secure double-door systems that enter into a transition area of each ½ acre enclosure. The perimeter fence is eight feet tall, with two 45-degree extensions containing six strands of barbless hotwire. This system keeps forest visitors (including wild bears) out of the bear enclosure. The inner enclosure fences are 10 feet tall and have suspended four-foot plastic panels on the inner walls of the fence to deter climbing. In 2016, the Center added barbless hotwire to the inner enclosure fences.

Each yard is an area of natural forest habitat – with trees, stumps, bushes, brush, and other native plants. These are the “classrooms” in which our cubs and yearling bears can interact with other bears and practice the skills they’ll need in the wild.

Bear Dens

Each enclosure contains a six by 10-foot concrete pool [which each holds about 350 gallons of water] and an automatic heated waterer. Five dens are in each yard, and were constructed out of three-foot corrugated pipe and partially buried in the ground. Most large trees located near the enclosure walls are wrapped with slippery protective plastic to ensure that the cubs cannot climb them and escape. Overhanging branches have also been taken down on unwrapped trees. Two towers are in the Black Bear Complex between the three bear yards. The 27-foot towers are three levels: a storage area at the lowest level, a station for food dispersal at the middle level, and an observation deck and camera housing at the top level.

Big Bear Facility

Each bear yard can house about 10-12 bear cubs. Depending on the Center’s annual caseload, this means that one or two enclosures are ideally not in use, which allows previously used yards to lay fallow for a season to regenerate growth.

Can I come see the bears?

No. As noted above, the Center adheres to strict protocols and procedures to ensure that our cubs stay wild, so they can be successfully released back into the wild. It's not in any patient's best interest to be on display to the public, and it's also an important permitting regulation.

But, you can watch the bears on the Center's Critter Cam network! Feel free to ask questions in the moderated discussion about where the bears are housed and what you are seeing. We generally offer bear cams in two of the three bear locations:

Cameras in the Large Mammal Isolation enclosure are typically mounted in the upper outer corner of each enclosure; the view typically includes a water tub, logs, and a swinging hammock.

Bear Hammock

The Bear Complex cameras are pan/tilt/zoom cameras, useful for finding the bears in the forested area.

Bear Yard Forested Area
When are the cubs released?

Black Bear cubs are released as yearlings — that is, in the spring, when they are more than a year old. The Wildlife Center works very closely with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to determine release dates; DWR determines all release locations. The Wildlife Center does not share specific release locations of bears.

Will the bears be able to survive without their mothers?

In the wild, Black Bear cubs typically remain with their mothers for about 17 months. While being with their mothers would be the ideal scenario, this is not possible for these cubs.

There have been a good number of studies on the survivorship of orphaned cubs; several studies suggest that some orphaned cubs are able to survive on their own when they are as young as five-and-a-half months old. According to John Beecham, “Leaving a cub in the wild is a viable option for many cubs if they are old enough to survive alone and have adequate fat reserves. American black bear cubs as young as five to seven months of age have survived … information from studying released bears suggests that survival rates are higher for older, larger cubs.”

According to a study by the U.S.D.A., L.L. Rogers notes, “Although black bear cubs normally remain with their mothers for 17 months … they are commonly self-sufficient at five months [by June-July, depending when they were born], and they instinctively construct dens in the fall.”

The Center typically rehabilitates bear cubs for about a year and releases them when they are roughly 15 months old, which is close to the age of natural dispersal.

What can I do to support the Virginia bear population?

From Jaime Sajecki, a biologist with DWR:

“Bear cubs are certainly fun to watch, and aiding rehabilitation efforts is much appreciated – but support of bears cannot end once they are off-camera and released into the wild! Every year there are hundreds of interactions between people and bears. Most people who call the DWR about a bear issue know very little to nothing about bears in general. This lack of knowledge is sometimes detrimental to the bears when they become too used to attractants around people’s homes. Bears can live more than 30 years in the wild and it is possible to coexist peacefully with these intelligent and magnificent animals. All it takes is for people to understand bears, their habits, their biology, and then take a few steps of prevention to keep bears from frequenting areas they should not be in. Please learn all you can about bears and spread the word. I am convinced: the more people that know about bears, the more people that will come to love and appreciate them. You can visit the DWR website or talk to your local biologist to learn more about bears in Virginia and how to keep them wild. Remember if you live in Virginia, you live in bear country!”

You Can Help Support Our Work With Bears

Your donation will help provide expert care for the Black Bears that the Center will treat this year and approximately 4,000 other patients in need.