Holly, our oldest female black bear, was born in the wild in Arkansas in January 2013. On March 12 of that year, a fire separated her from her mother. A man found her singed and too young to walk. He raised her until September when Arkansas wildlife officials sent her to Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR) to prepare her for release into the wild. However, in December, Arkansas officials determined she should not be returned to the wild. They contacted the North American Bear Center, and Holly arrived here at her new ”forever home” on December 27, 2013.
One reason the NABC was happy to accept Holly, a southern bear, is that she probably carries northern genes. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Arkansas bear population was under 50 individuals, so Arkansas imported over 250 black bears from Manitoba and here in northeastern Minnesota. Their population has now grown to around 3,000.
With such hardy genes, Holly arrived ready for one of the coldest winters in Minnesota history. She had already grown a dense coat of underfur in September – earlier than southern bears do and weighed a healthy 84 pounds. During her first month and a half in Minnesota, little Holly survived below zero temperatures on 40 of the 47 nights. A Den Cam showed people how she coped with temperatures down to 43° below zero. She simply burrowed into a pile of straw and mostly slept through the near-record cold.
When she first arrived, Holly explored her new little pen, not knowing it was only part of her new world. She rolled in the snow and climbed the fence posts. She watched people working at a distance but was cautious when caretakers approached. She was also hesitant to enter the concrete den the caretakers had prepared for her. Eventually, enticed by grapes and hazelnuts, she crawled into the den with Dr. Rogers and seemed relaxed.
Soon after, she began to hibernate. During brief, active periods, she and her neighbor Lucky, a 400-pound male, checked each other out through a 4-inch hole between their adjacent concrete dens. They sniffed each other through the hole and perhaps touch noses. Holly probably had no idea how big Lucky was.
In the spring of 2014, Holly emerged from her concrete den and saw how big Lucky was in the adjacent pen. It took Holly several days to approach him. Slowly, they continued building their trust through the fence. Holly seemed to feel safe in her pen and trusted the fence to keep Lucky at bay. Over the days, she would approach him and then bound away when he moved. Finally, we saw the bear sign of friendship as they touched noses and tongues through the fence.
At the same time, staff members were working to gain Holly’s trust. Several times a day, they greeted Holly through the fence with fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. Through the fence, they began giving her bottles of formula rich in vitamins and nutrients plus antibiotics prescribed by our veterinarian for an old wound. When they felt Holly was ready, they entered the pen to give the food and bottles. When Holly was comfortable with that, they tried gently stroking her with one hand while they held the bottle with the other. Touch is the universal language. Holly felt the caretakers’ message and developed bonds with them.
On April 10th, the veterinarian removed Holly’s heavy metal ear tags that had made her ears droop. Without the tags, Holly’s ears stood up, and she could better move them to focus on sounds.
On May 30, it was time to introduce Holly to the forest habitat of the big enclosure. The staff locked Honey and Lucky in their individual pens, Ted was down at the pond area. They opened Holly’s sliding door. Holly stood by the open door but wouldn’t come out. Heidi offered a peanut to coax her. Holly wasn’t interested. Safety was her concern, and her protective door was open. Traffic sounds a tenth of a mile away were a special concern for her. She didn’t go far. Smells of strange bears were all around her. She sniffed the ground. She sniffed dozens of branches where bears had brushed past on a path. Wary hesitance showed in every glance and movement. She started up several trees—sometimes in response to unknown sounds, sometimes apparently just to explore the safety of the treetops. She climbed one tree five times.
She continued her sniffing everything that had bear smell on it—which was literally about everything. We remember seeing her glimpse something down in the viewing area (Ted), standing up, and then retreating into the woods again. Later, with trusted staff near her, she did make it down to the viewing area with Ted there. But when she sniffed Honey’s window den and peeked into the empty den, Holly raced back to the forest. Eventually, with Heidi beside her, Holly came down to the viewing area 10-20 yards from Ted who ignored her as he was being fed. Holly was constantly sniffing her new strange surroundings the entire time.
After Holly’s slow start in exploring the big enclosure and climbing trees over and over, etc., we were able to lure her down to the viewing area as shown in these five videos.