by Claire Turner
Bear Manager, Fortress of the Bear
The author, bonding with Bandit
Anyone who works in the exotic animal field will tell you that finding work in a reputable facility is challenging and exhausting. You’ll apply for endless internships and pour your heart and soul into engaging cover letters while dreaming of working long hours, engaging with fascinating creatures and shoveling poop in all sorts of weather conditions. Zoo keepers are some of the hardest working, thickest skinned, passionate people out there – and their work is also some of the most rewarding.
Finding work that specializes in a particular species of animal kept in very few captive environments in your home country is tricky. There aren’t many bears in England where I’m from, so I found myself searching for facilities that cared for bears all over the world. And I couldn’t be happier that I found Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska, as it changed my life forever.
Fortress of the Bear is a non-profit, bear rescue organization. I was surprised to learn the state of Alaska doesn’t have rehabilitation programs for orphaned black or brown bear cubs. When a cub is orphaned, it is typically euthanized.
Bear cubs are orphaned for a number of reasons, predominantly due to human behavior. Sometimes their mothers are lured into human settlements by the tempting smells of irresponsibly discarded food waste. Often they are shot by hunters, or hit by cars. If a mother bear is hanging around too close to town and considered a nuisance, authorities will often destroy the bear for the sake of human safety. The cubs left behind are traumatized, terrified and lost without their mother. Due to their high anxiety, it’s difficult to home them in commercial zoos, and Alaskan state legislation doesn’t allow rehabilitation and release into the wild. As a result, many black and brown bear cubs are destroyed every year.
This changed when Les and Evy Kinnear, two incredibly strong-willed and passionate individuals that I am proud to call my Alaskan family, stepped up. They fought and campaigned to start Fortress of the Bear, converting water clarification tanks of an abandoned pulp mill into large, engaging enclosures, perfectly suited to house orphaned bear cubs. After years of paper work, red tape and demanding physical labor, they received permits to house bears in 2007. Only eight days later, their first brown bear cub, Killisnoo, arrived. He was soon joined by his biological brother Chaik.
In 2010 a second enclosure became a forever home for brown bear triplets Balloo, Lucky and Toby. In 2013, Smokey, Bandit and Tuliaan arrived and moved into a third enclosure – the only three black bear cubs in Sitka! Each bear has an engaging story and I could write about them for hours. Instead, I recommend reading all about them on our website, or this blog is going to snowball out of control. One thing all these bears have in common is they would have been destroyed if Fortress of the Bear hadn’t stepped up and committed to caring for them for the rest of their lives. An additional five bears have also been rescued by Fortress of the Bear, then rehomed in other facilities within the United States once they were strong, healthy and well-adjusted enough to travel.
Lucky, a brown bear who found his forever home in 2010
I was privileged enough to volunteer with Fortress of the Bear for the first time in the summer of 2012 with my boyfriend. I fell in love with the bears and the people. I think my boyfriend must have enjoyed it too, as he proposed while we were there. In the summer of 2013, I skipped wearing a silly hat to celebrate my graduation and we returned to volunteer as husband and wife. That winter, we hand-raised three gorgeous black bear cubs – a career highlight I doubt will ever be topped.
Finally, in April 2014, we returned on work visas and spent 18 months watching Fortress of the Bear grow, change and improve. We were drenched and tail-slapped by salmon as we provided our bears with live fish to catch and enjoy in the summer. We shed tears of joy when we watched our two brown bear groups touch noses for the first time after a lengthy introduction process. We proudly witnessed our black bear babies grow into confident, chunky sub-adults no longer in need of our hands-on contact. And we were pretty smitten when our own little family expanded when our baby Winnie was born. I will never forget the doctors and nurses shouting “the cub has arrived!” when she was delivered. What a lucky little girl, to have bears for brothers and sisters.
Claire Turner and her family
It is difficult to put into words how much this incredible place means to me. It has shaped me as a person and strengthened me as a professional bear specialist. My time there has crafted me into a mother – of both bear cubs and a baby. My compassionate colleagues never fail to impress me. The Fortress of the Bear is responsible for some of the finest bear-related conservation. I know they will eventually lead Alaska in the rehabilitation and release of orphaned bear cubs. All their work is done without government funding and Fortress of the Bear survives on summer admission sales, donations and online purchases. If you’ve made it this far in my guest blog post, I hope you consider visiting our website to read about our amazing bears and perhaps buy a t-shirt or make a donation. If you do, know that every dollar goes directly to the care of our bears and supports future projects.