Chapter 11: Bearly Controlled Enthusiasm

In 2003, Dr. Scott started treating bears. The bears were raised by Ruth LaBarge, a former horse trainer, who learned her bear training skills from Doug Suez, most known for his work with a 1,500 pound Kodiac bear named “Bart.” Bears raised in captivity and trained in a certain way become very pliable, displaying more of their dog-like characteristics and less of the frightening, predatory characteristics they are known for in the wild.

Ruth has one black bear, and several grizzly and Kodiac bears. She raised what Scott calls happy bears. They were playful, socialized, used to travel, calm in unfamiliar situations and not easily frightened. That is important as there is nothing more dangerous than a frightened bear.

Ruth’s black bear, named “Bonkers“, was starring in the HBO remake of Gentle Ben, when he began to have intestinal problems. The local vets had no idea how to deal with bears. Scott spoke to Ruth on the phone, asking questions and trying to tease out the clues to what might be wrong, but he couldn’t do anything conclusive until he saw Bonkers “in person.” When the movie wrapped up they decided to bring Bonkers down to Los Angeles to let Scott examine him.

They made arrangements to use a local equine (horse) hospital that was big enough to accommodate a black bear. It had an endoscope and x-ray machine that they could use to do the examination. Scott met Ruth in person for the first time outside the hospital. She wanted to lead Bonkers into the surgery by hand. Scott had serious concerns about this. Until he knew the owner of a potentially dangerous wild animal, he was never sure what their relationship with their animal was actually like – so he wasn’t sure how safe it was to to interact with them.

He looked from side to side as Ruth let the giant bear out of his trailer. To the left was a parking lot to a department store. There were parked cars and some shoppers pushing grocery carts. To the right was a busy road. He said a quick prayer that Ruth was really in control of the bear – and that the name Bonkers was not a description of his personality.

It wasn’t. Scott watched Ruth lead Bonkers calmly into the x-ray area of the hospital. He could see that she had a good relationship with the bear. Bonkers wasn’t feeling well, but even so he seemed very relaxed in Ruth’s care.

Scott had his dart gun, in case the bear needed to be darted, but Ruth didn’t want that used on her bear and insisted it wouldn’t be necessary. Instead she lay down on the floor of the examining room and Bonkers lay down next to her and put his big head on her lap. Then she told Scott she was ready for him to inject Bonkers with the sedative.

Scott again had doubts. This bear was huge. If he jolted when Scott injected him he could crush Ruth. Later Ruth admitted that when Bonkers wasn’t feeling well, she often slept with him in his trailer to comfort him. The only danger she had experienced was that if Bonkers rolled over in the night he could crush her. This was a trainer who had bonded with her animals.

Still, a veterinarian never knows how a wild animal will react when they stick a big needle in it. If you expect a reaction you can do a quick aggressive injection and be done with it, but this might startle a calm animal. With a calm animal you can do a slow injection. Ruth assured Scott that Bonkers would be fine and so he went ahead with a slow injection. Bonkers lifted his sleepy head and peered at Scott then, but then he laid it back down and calmly drifted off to sleep.

Scott did biopsies and x-rays. Things pointed to a type of gastroenteritis — essentially a bear tummy ache. This can result from a variety of things including food allergies or bacterial infections. To pin down the exact nature of this reoccurring problem they would have to do more invasive exploration and possibly even surgery. Ruth was too anxious to let them do exploratory surgery, unless it was unavoidable. Scott gave Ruth some advice about what to feed Bonkers, but he suspected that the bear had chronic inflammatory bowel disease.

When Bonkers had his next episode, Scott decided to go out and visit him at home. Sometimes he could get a clue about what an animal might be eating that was upsetting its stomach from looking over the enclosure.

The bear preserve was in a large wooded area surrounded by a quiet suburban neighborhood. Scott drove through a locked gate in a chain-link fence and down a long dirt road. There were several large enclosures. Some were surrounded by tall chain-link fences and some were only bounded by a string of electric wire about three feet high. In one of the enclosures he saw a huge water trough with what looked like a giant tree stump soaking in it. Then the tree stump moved and he realized it was the biggest grizzly bear he had ever seen. It had turned its massive head and watched him drive by.  He was glad he’d been driving so slowly or he might have driven off the road. It was like looking for an alligator and seeing a t-rex.

Finally he spotted a trailer surrounded by a scrub pine forest. He got out of the truck and knocked on the trailer door. No answer. He thought he heard movement inside the trailer, but not knowing what other animals Ruth might have inside, he decided not to investigate. Maybe she’d taught one of her bears to fold laundry…

Scott looked around, glancing dubiously at the low fences. He wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to wander around the compound. There were, after all, several grizzlies – each weighing a half ton – ambling around the place.

He spotted a picnic table sitting under a tree near one of the enclosures. It seemed to be covered by a picnic. He walked over but there was still no sign of Ruth. Then he looked more closely at the table. There was a plate of oreo cookies, a chocolate cake, a pie and a dozen frosted cupcakes. That was weird. He was sure this was the time Ruth had agreed to see him. He didn’t think she had mentioned that she was having a birthday party. Finally Ruth came strolling out of the woods carrying a bucket and ball.

“Hey! Sorry,” she called, walking over swiftly. “It’s training day.” She gestured at the ball before tossing it on the ground.

“Sorry to interrupt your party,” Scott said, motioning at the picnic table.

“Party?” Ruth said. She looked confused.

Scott gestured again at the picnic table covered in cake and cookies.

“Oh that!” Ruthe said a little sheepishly. “I told you it’s training day.”

Scott stood still for a moment and then it finally sank in. “You feed them that on training day?” he asked incredulous.

Ruth shrugged. “They love sweets. It’s a great incentive.”

“Ruth,” Scott said, trying to keep the scold out of his voice.

She put a hand up. “I know, I know. I spoil them. But they so love cake.”

Scott looked at the devil’s food cake with fudge frosting and shook his head. He knew it was not the whole story behind Bonkers sensitive tummy, but it wasn’t helping either. He gave Ruth a serious talk about the bears’ diets before he left (with a cupcake).

Driving home Scott thought about how many obese pets he had treated over the years. People just couldn’t resist over-feeding their beloved pets. Bonkers was not overweight, but it didn’t mean that chocolate cake was good for him either.

Scott took a bite of the cupcake. Hmmm…. It was delicious. He might growl on command for one of these. Bears, like humans, have a sweet tooth and love dessert. Winnie the Pooh’s love of honey was based on fact!

Scott sighed. It looked like Bonkers was having his cake… and eating it too.

* Watch for the next entry – Chapter 12: Bears On The Job.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.