Two Kodiak bear cubs may get new life in Sweden

Shaguyik, a Kodiak cub caught in December, is one of two cubs that could be headed to Sweden. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo)

It was an inauspicious start for the two Kodiak bear cubs that may soon become Kodiak Island ambassadors to Europe.

One cub was left without a caretaker in November when his mother was shot in defense of life and property. The other cub somehow separated from her mother in December and wandered through the subdivisions of Kodiak, ending up at Jackson’s trailer park. Both bears were less than a year old, relying on their mothers for food and winter dens. They could not have survived in the wild on their own.

Stories of orphan cubs are common in Kodiak, where there is a thriving bear population, said Larry Van Daele, area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In most cases, the department has followed a policy of letting nature take its course.

For these cubs, however, plans years in the making will make for a different outcome.

Almost five years ago Van Daele returned from his first trip to Orsa Grönklitt, a large carnivore and bear sanctuary in Sweden, and was impressed with the way bears were treated. Instead of the small enclosures found in some zoos, bears had acres to roam in. A separate enclosure could highlight Kodiak bears, including a pond stocked with fish.

Over the years, Van Daele said, he has been checking into the education program and the financial backing of the park to see if it was a good fit for Kodiak bears.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Van Daele said.

Van Daele hadn’t agreed to send a Kodiak bear cub off island since 1999, when one went to the Milwaukee County Zoo.

He came to the conclusion that Orsa Grönklitt is a legitimate location for these bears, and agreed to have the park house a couple of Kodiak bears as ambassadors for education and learning, should they become available.

“The moon and the stars had to line up for that to happen,” Van Daele said.

Luck has been on the side of the male cub he named Taquka, the Alutiiq name for a brown bear, and the female cub named Shaguyik, an Eskimo word for ghost or spirit.

Working with the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly Thursday on a letter of support to help move the bears to the Swedish park, Van Daele said the carnivore center is the best he has seen in the world.

More than just a zoo, Orsa Grönklitt is an education center where hundreds of thousands of people per year come from all over Europe. The park will also highlight Kodiak-based research about how people and bears have learned to co-exist here.

“They’re just top-notch in the education that they do and the enrichment that they have for these animals,” Van Daele said. “The animals are the best adjusted captive animals that I’ve seen.”

While the enclosure for the Kodiak bears is constructed at the bear park and permits obtained for the bears to travel to Sweden, the two cubs are being trained at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage to be more comfortable with people.

The training involves operant conditioning and positive reinforcement in a setting where conservation biologist Jordan Schaul gets to interact with the Kodiak cubs directly and not through a barrier.

The interaction gives people an opportunity to see the animal-human bond that develops, Schaul said.

“We don’t want people to think that bears aren’t dangerous, because they are,” he said.

The Kodiak bears are a hit at the conservation center.

“We’ve seen an increase in visitors this past month and I credit it to the bear cubs,” Schaul said.

Interacting with the bears day after day, Schaul found the two cubs have very different personalities. Shaguyik is a serious and calculating bear, motivated by food, which makes her responsive to behavioral training.

On the other hand, Taquka is a quirky, curious cub and playful about everything.

Schaul said when the cubs first came they were much more awkward in their habitat, but now they are definitely more confident.

The bears have shed their long winter coats and can climb around on the logs and debris that are part of the environment.

“I will miss them, certainly,” Schaul said, “I’m not in a hurry to see them go.”

Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via email at whanna@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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