Russians lending a helping paw

Brown bear cubs take their first steps down the porch of their “den house” inside the forest enclosure of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program near the village of Bubonitsy, Russia, 220 miles northwest of Moscow. Enlarge photo

ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/Associated Press

Brown bear cubs take their first steps down the porch of their “den house” inside the forest enclosure of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program near the village of Bubonitsy, Russia, 220 miles northwest of Moscow.

BUBONITSY, Russia – Russian hunters have long been in the habit of rousting hibernating bears from their winter dens, shooting them for their pelts and meat, and leaving the cubs to starve or freeze to death. But Valentin Pazhetnov has a method of keeping the little ones alive and returning them to nature.

The secret, the Russian biologist says, is minimal contact with humans, so that the cubs learn to fend for themselves.

“Bear cubs shouldn’t get used to the smell of humans, to human houses ... the human voice,” he told AP Television. “They must avoid people, fear them. This is the only way they can survive in the wild.” 

The bears are brought in by volunteers, hunters or people who stumble upon them by chance and are sheltered at the Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program at Bubonitsy, a village 220 miles northwest of Moscow. The program is funded by the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Here, Pazhetnov; his wife, Svetlana; son Sergei; two grandchildren; and volunteers raise the cubs in a wooden den, where they live in darkness. The staff members wear clothes impregnated with bear odor, deliver food to the animals quickly and refrain from fondling or communicating with them.  

In spring, the cubs are moved to larger enclosures, and they are released in the autumn.

Pazhetnov said about 200 cubs have been saved since 1996, and he welcomes a nationwide ban on hunting bears in dens that was enacted in March 2011.

He notes that aside from the cruelty involved, the bear is a Russian symbol, so “It was the right step, and we are happy that the ban has been signed.”

Biologist Vasily Pazhetnov uses a bottle to feed a brown bear cub at the Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program site. Enlarge photo

ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/Associated Press

Biologist Vasily Pazhetnov uses a bottle to feed a brown bear cub at the Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program site.