The bear cub was emaciated, soaking wet and barely breathing, its stuffed-animal-sized body lying face up in a meadow. It would almost certainly die within minutes.
As Corey Hancock stood over the cub on a remote trail near Oregon’s Santiam River Monday evening, the 41-year-old father didn’t see a bear — he saw a baby in distress.
A feeling of panic descended as Hancock realized he had minutes to make a decision. He could watch the cub die in the rain, or he could scoop the animal up, risking the wrath of a raging mother.
“I thought about my 2-year-old son, and I saw a baby that deserved to live,” Hancock told The Washington Post. “If I would’ve walked away from that bear, it would’ve haunted me the rest of my life.”
After 10 minutes of waiting for any sign of the mother, Hancock chose to act. He wrapped the cub in his flannel shirt and a rainproof sack and ran the mile-and-a-half to the trailhead, where his car was parked. After posting a plea for help on Facebook, he rushed the cub to Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center in Hancock’s hometown of Salem, performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation along the way when it appeared the animal had stopped breathing.
Once at the center, Hancock said, the bear was placed on a heating pad and given electrolyte fluids. The next morning, already improved, it was turned over the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Hancock’s story was shared widely on social media, where it provoked strong reactions. Most people praised Hancock and some called him “a hero” and “a rock star,” but he also incurred a backlash from those who thought he should have stayed out of nature’s way. Some pointed out that he likely consigned the animal to a life of captivity.
For some, Hancock’s actions brought to mind the infamous baby bison in Yellowstone Park that died last year after tourists worried that it looked cold and put it in the back of their vehicle. The calf was eventually euthanized when its mother then rejected it as a result of the “interference by people,” according to park authorities.
After reviewing Hancock’s story, Sylvia Dolson, executive director of Get Bear Smart Society, said she didn’t think his actions exemplified the sort of extreme anthropomorphism that often accompanies humans overstepping their bounds in the wild.
“The rescuer, in this case, did the only thing any caring person should do,” she said, noting that the cub “would have almost certainly died” without help. But that doesn’t mean people who discover bear cubs in the wild need to rescue them, she cautioned.
“Some mothers may leave their cubs unattended in a tree for several hours while they go to find food,” she said. “The cubs are safe in the tree. A cub lying on his back on the ground almost comatose is dying. I personally support stepping in and saving their life.”
Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for the Oregon fish and wildlife agency, said that it’s unlawful to remove wildlife from their habitat but that Hancock’s case seemed unique and his actions “well-intentioned.” She said Oregon state police talked to him and issued a warning but decided not to cite him.
“Every year we see deer fawns and bear cubs and cougar kittens removed from the wild because people assume the animal is orphaned when the mother is just eating or doing something else,” Dennehy said. Individuals can face a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $6,250 and up to a year in jail.
An agency statement noted that the bear — which Hancock had dubbed “Elkhorn” — weighed 4.5 pounds when authorities retrieved it. Veterinary staff diagnosed mild pneumonia and evaluated the male cub “to make sure it didn’t have any underlying congenital issues that would have made him a poor candidate for rehabilitation.”
Dave Garshellis, the bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said it’s hard to predict whether an orphan like this one can be reintroduced to the wild, but cubs are often more easily rehabilitated when they’re paired with other baby bears. Lone cubs have much lower success rates, he said.
The rehabilitation process also hinges on whether caregivers can avoid habituating the animal to people by having too much contact with them. This sometimes involves feeding the cubs while dressed in elaborate costumes and giving the bear a pen that mimics a natural setting.
“If they become habituated to people during the rehabilitation process they become a nuisance later in life,” Garshellis said. “They risk becoming attracted to people, which means they’ll either get shot or wind up back in captivity.”
State wildlife officials said Hancock’s rescue will indeed get company: a female cub that was abandoned by its mother and is about the same age.
On Friday, both were transported to PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynwood, Wash. The rehabilitation facility offers specialized care “designed to allow young bears to develop without habituating to humans so they can be returned to Oregon for release into the wild,” the agency said.
Oregon state wildlife vet Colin Gillin expects to get both of them back next spring, when they’ll weigh between 100 and 150 pounds.
Hancock hopes to visit Elkhorn and monitor his progress — as long as that doesn’t interfere with the cub’s rehabilitation. The place where he found the bear is one of his favorite spots on that river trail. A small patch of grass there blooms with lilies in the summer. He can’t help but feel like their encounter was more than chance.
“I almost feel like he was one of my own or something,” he said.