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Berkley the Bear

 
It has been my great pleasure to spend time at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta over the past few years. While you might think it has simply been for the opportunity to take reference photos for paintings and another venue for selling my poster prints, the benefits have been so much more.

Last Thursday, I dropped off a large batch of poster prints for their upcoming season. I’ve gotten to know these good folks and it was great to catch up with a few of them. Noticeably absent, however, was Serena Bos, the head keeper. I was told that she was on a road trip.

“Good road trip or bad road trip,” I asked.

“Good road trip. You’re going to love this,” Mari told me. She’s one of the other keepers whose company I enjoy when I’m at the park.

That’s all she’d say and despite my annoying questions (fine, I was almost begging), she wouldn’t tell me anything.

As a result, I’ve been keeping a close eye on their Facebook page, waiting for the announcement. On Thursday, I saw the first photos of Berkley, a Kodiak bear cub..

I sent Serena a text…

As the conversation progressed, I joked that I wasn’t going to be able to see her until late May. They don’t open until May 1st, I have the Calgary Expo that weekend, will be away the week after that and the month of May is quite busy. She’ll have grown so much.

Serena generously offered me a private visit with Berkley if I could come up the following day, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up. While my relationship with the park has afforded me behind-the-scenes experiences like this before, it’s a special circumstance I never take for granted.

Luckily, Discovery Wildlife Park is just a little over two hours away and the roads were good. The looming last gasp of winter weather didn’t hit that area until that evening when I was already back in Canmore.

Berkley is a recent immigrant from the U.S., but all of her paperwork is in order. She comes from a facility where her mother’s pregnancy was unexpected and the father was still present. Sadly, he killed the second cub. While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. Here’s an explanation of why from a Q&A on the National Park Service website

Many people on the Discovery Wildlife Park Facebook page are asking why she was taken from her mother so young. The simplest reason was that her life was in danger and the mother wasn’t caring for her in a manner that would have prevented it. Nature is often harsh. An uncomfortable reality, but reality nonetheless.

Serena has always encouraged me to ask a lot of questions and while I have been respectful, I’ve asked some that might have been taken for antagonism. Thankfully, we know each other well enough now that she understands I just want to learn and she’s as frank with her answers as I am with the questions.

We took Berkley into a wooded area on the park property and let her run around. Careful to keep her away from a nearby small stream, we both snapped pictures and Serena answered plenty of my questions.

Here’s some of what I learned…

Berkley will be with Serena or another caregiver 24 hours a day likely until midsummer when she will slowly get used to spending the night alone in her own enclosure. This will be done gradually and eventually she will be happiest on her own, as most brown bears are.

As Berkley could never be a wild bear, there is no danger of her seeing too many people. While she will have a strictly regulated diet for the rest of her life, people smells and our environment means she will always associate us with food, a situation that results in too many euthanized bears in the wild.

While she only weighs just over ten pounds now, Berkley will eventually grow to be an 800-1000 pound big beautiful bear over the next 5-8 years. I am grateful I got to interact with her now, because it’ll never happen again when she’s an adult. That being said, the keepers will have a daily relationship with her for the rest of her life and she will most likely view them as we would a family member we’ve known and trusted for years. Watching the staff interact with the adult bears they’ve raised from cubs never fails to make me smile.

In the wild, a Kodiak bear’s life expectancy is around 8 years. If all goes well with the circumstances they can control, Berkley can expect to live 25 or more at Discovery Wildlife Park.

Little Berkley has very sharp teeth and nails. In most of the pictures I got with her, you’ll notice I keep my hands closed, although I did get to pet her when she was distracted and Serena said it was OK. I’m not familiar enough to her that I can trust that she wouldn’t bite or scratch me.

At one point Berkley fell off a log and made a squealing noise on the way down and as she hit. My instinct was to grab her but I kept my hands to myself. Serena said that was the right call, because with Berkley flailing about, she very likely could have seriously hurt me. And bears are tougher than we are. The noise she was making wasn’t because she was hurt, it was just because she was scared. She was back on her feet and running around right away.

Berkley is going to be a teacher, in more ways than one. She will be trained to perform tasks and tricks (for lack of a better word) for a couple of reasons. One, it will keep her mind active and is a form of enrichment. In the wild, a bear will always be looking for food and that keeps their brain going. In captivity, where food is provided, it’s the job of her caretakers to provide her with things to think about and problems to solve.

But it will also mean she will get used to being trained, so that when it comes time to present her paw for a blood sample or to urinate on command for testing, she will view it as routine without any stress. These tasks will not only contribute to her overall health, but will provide a valuable scientific resource.

Just like some of the other bears in the Park, Berkley will provide baseline health data of a bear living a low stress life, a consequence of having a regular diet, enrichment and veterinary care. This information will be of great use to select post-secondary schools and research institutions that study bears in different environments. If you know what the data for a low-stress bear looks like, you know how to measure against data for a high stress bear. This will directly aid in wildlife conservation and research, for regions where bears might be living in less than ideal conditions in the wild.

You might wonder, as I did, how Berkley will fare since she won’t have her bear Mom to teach her how to be a bear. Serena assured me that there is a lot of instinct involved in bear behaviour. In the time we were out in the wooded area, that became evident as Berkley climbed over logs, scratched at trees, and scurried around sniffing at everything. She looked like a bear to me.

Her development will be fast. In just the three days since I’d seen a video of Berkley wobbling around on unsteady feet, I saw a completely different bear when I got there. While playing with her, I broke into a bit of a run and her being a bear, she gave chase. I had to run faster, almost up to my own full speed as this tiny little bear kept gaining on me.

Unsteady? Not for long.
I could go on at great length about all that I learned yesterday, but I would encourage you to go see Berkley in person, along with all of the other critters who live at Discovery Wildlife Park when they open May 1st. Go with an open mind, leave your conclusions at the gate and if you have any questions, please ask any of the helpful staff you’ll encounter.

Take part in the different talks they do and consider some of the other programs available. For a small fee, you can even get your picture taken with GusGus the beaver. Tell him I sent you and ignore him if he says he doesn’t know who I am. Trust me, we’re old friends.

Like all of my experiences at the park, my time with Berkley was special and it’s a day I won’t soon forget. I’m already planning a painting of this little diva, but by the time it’s done, she’ll have grown a fair bit, so maybe I’ll just have to keep painting her to keep pace.

Hey, there’s an idea.

Big thanks to Serena Bos and all of the other dedicated staff at Discovery Wildlife Park. You all make me want to be a better human. Any photos seen here with me in the picture, Serena took the shot.

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The Jaguar Totem

Whenever I’ve visited Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, it has most often been with an agenda in mind. Two behind the scenes experiences with their lion cubs resulted in my painting of Zendaya. An informal photo shoot with GusGus resulted in the Beaver Totem. Last year I had two up close and personal encounters with their bears to get the reference for the upcoming Black Bear Totem.

I’ve created plenty of sketch paintings of their animals in the past few years. These are images I don’t quite consider polished and print ready, but are good practice and enjoyable work. My experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park have also given me ideas for other projects I hadn’t previously considered.

Best of all, I’ve spent time with the animals, learning about their care, training and wildlife conservation in general.

As my prints (and soon shirts) are sold in their gift shop, and as a consequence of my increasingly regular visits, I’ve been getting to know the staff and keepers. They’ve graciously invited me to hang out with them a couple of times while they’ve cared for their charges. I’ve been able to ask plenty of questions, learned a great deal about the animals, knocked the legs out from under some of my false assumptions about creatures in captivity, and taken hundreds of photos.

It was on one of my bear photo visits last year that I was offered the chance to spend time with Mia and Magnum, their resident jaguars. This was an unexpected treat, an opportunity I certainly wasn’t going to pass up.

Mia had recently had a root canal and the keepers had trained him to open his mouth for inspection and to have the repaired tooth brushed. I wrote about the experience in another blog post you can see here. In the painting, I added in the missing tooth for wider appeal and to avoid confusion.

With so many great photos to choose from, due to the sheer number of them rather than my skills as a photographer, adding a Jaguar Totem to the list was an easy choice. Mia won out over Magnum as the model largely because of the wide open mouth reference and I just thought it would make a brighter and more vibrant image.

Don’t be surprised, however, if you see Magnum as a Panther Totem in the future, even though I learned last year that a panther is really just another name for a black jaguar or black leopard depending on where it’s from.

The Black Bear Totem is next as I’d like to have it ready for the Calgary Comic Expo in April and for the upcoming busy season in the galleries and zoos.

After that, we’ll see.

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Grizzly Ride Into K-Country

HighwoodPassHighway 40 into Kananaskis is one of the prettiest drives around here. From Canmore to the Highwood Pass (the highest paved road in Canada), it takes about an hour, although most people make time to stop along the way for photos of the scenery or if they’re lucky enough to see wildlife.

This time of year, it’s a busy place, especially on weekends. Almost all of the campgrounds stay full the whole summer. For that reason, I’m not a big fan of camping in K-Country, but I do like to make the drive once in a while.

Wednesday mornings are usually one of my busier days as I have two cartoons to get done and sent, one syndicated and the local cartoon for the Rocky Mountain Outlook. This week, I worked a little longer beforehand so that I could take this morning to go for an early drive, hopefully to get some photos of grizzly bears. A photographer friend told me that I’d have the best chance of finding them on that highway just as the sun was coming up before the tourists got going. As he’s got some beautiful bear pics and makes his living as a wildlife photographer, sounded like good advice to me.

The wildlife around here becomes scarce in the middle of the day and traffic is quite heavy all summer long. I got up before 5, sent out the cartoon I’d already drawn, grabbed a coffee, a quick bite and was on the road by 6:30.

While I had my heart set on animal pics, I know that’s always hit and miss and critters don’t punch time clocks, so I was optimistic but realistic. With only a few other cars on the highway, especially the last half of the climb, the scenery was spectacular as always. Happened across a red pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road and with nobody else around, I pulled up beside him and asked if he’d seen any bears. He said he hadn’t, but that’s what he was after. I think he was listening to radio collar frequencies, but I can’t be sure.
PikaI drove off up to the Pass without any wildlife sightings. After a few moments enjoying the stillness, I got back in the car and started back. Just two minutes from the Pass, I stopped at a spot well known for pikas and had some fun chasing the little buggers around the rocks with my camera, hoping I’d get some that would turn out. For you photographers out there, I was shooting with a 24-70mm lens. Pikas are fast and small, so I was relying a lot on luck, that one would just happen to run past me, close enough to get a decent shot. Managed about five keepers and I’m honestly surprised I got that many.

That bigger lens is still on my wish list. Someday.

On the way back, I decided to take the Smith-Dorian Trail back to Canmore, a 60km gravel dirt road. Not really a shortcut, just a different route. After about 5km, however, I turned back to Hwy 40. The road has become a severe washboard and I didn’t want to shake my car apart.

Kicking myself a little for turning back, I was rewarded for the decision. Not long after turning onto Highway 40, I came around a corner and sure enough, there was a large grizzly bear by the side of the road. Parked beside her, that same red pickup truck.

I pulled over and started clicking away.
Bear152As she munched away on bushes, moving down the ditch, red pickup truck guy moved around me for a better angle. When she had moved past me, I did the same and he and I played a little bit of a game of leapfrog as we kept pace with her, both of us shooting from our vehicles. At one point I asked him if I was in his way, and he waved it off with a smile, both of us trying not to hurt the other’s chances at the best shots.

I will admit that I was suffering from lens envy. His was bigger.

She eventually wandered off into the bush and I headed home, anxious to see if I’d gotten any shots. I got about three good ones I want to keep. Nothing that I’m likely to paint from, but I finally got to see my first grizzly in the wild. She had a radio collar on her, so I could see that she has been designated Bear 152. She sure is pretty.

Looking her up online, I’m pleased to see that she is not a nuisance bear, and plenty of other folks have had the same great experience to have come across her in their travels. I’m hoping to again.
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The Ultimate Bear Experience

SunshineIn December of last year, I received an email from Discovery Wildlife Park telling me about the Ultimate Bear Experience. A rare opportunity to “spend 4 hours with our black bears and our zookeepers. Feed, train and get to know each bear personally!”

For adults only, a limit of five spots, I booked quickly and was confirmed for the date seven months later. I have been looking forward to it ever since.

As of last year, I’ve become a regular visitor to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. I did the behind the scenes tour with the lion cubs twice last year as I knew it wouldn’t be offered again once they’d grown. Having seen them again this week, I’m glad I took advantage of it as those kitties got big! In October, I was granted a short photo shoot with GusGus the beaver and those photos resulted in my latest painting, which is already proving popular. My prints are now available in their gift shop this year as well.

Incidentally, I showed GusGus his painting on Thursday. Clearly, not a fan.
GusGusWhile I was sure the bear experience was going to be enjoyable and educational, I didn’t know what would be involved and was pleasantly surprised that it exceeded my expectations. Not only did we get close access to the bears, but one of the keepers was snapping photos the whole time, so in addition to my own pics, I was given theirs as well, a nice record of the day. Considering some of the great things we got to do, my camera would have been in the way during those times I wanted my attention on the bears.
BearShitWe began with raking and shoveling bear poop, something that is done every day by the keepers. After that, we stuck fresh cut branches of varying sizes into the ground around the enclosures while the bears were ‘loaded up.’ This means they were in their adjacent pens, a substitute for a den and safe place for them, much like how your dog feels safe in his kennel.
Planting02
Planting01We were given peanut butter and honey that we smeared on logs, leaves and branches around the enclosure. Just a little bit, enough to pique the bears’ interest. The purpose of this exercise is enrichment. By introducing new things into the enclosures on a regular basis, it gives the bears something to do. In the wild, a bear’s time is consumed with finding food. In captivity, enrichment provides them with stimulation through interesting things to explore, directly contributing to their overall mental and physical health.
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LittleBear01After we left the enclosure, the bears were released and we were able to see the results of our efforts. Sure enough, they were eager to check out the new digs. They manipulated the branches, sniffed out the little food smears, and were genuinely interested and engaged with what we had done. I had plenty of time to take pictures of the results.
GroupFor the rest of the time, we moved from one bear to the next. A couple of them live together, others on their own. I had expected to only be exposed to them with a chain link fence between us, so I was pleasantly surprised when we were able to step inside a few times. The only separation between our group and the bear was an electric fence, similar to one you’d find around a cattle pasture. Nothing that can hurt the bear, just annoying enough to create a barrier they learn to avoid.
ToesWe had a chance to reinforce some of their training, spoon feed a favorite treat of avocado, and when I mentioned that a large reason for doing this was to challenge my bear phobia, the head zookeeper decided to ‘take it up a notch’ and brought out the apple pieces. The result you can see below, a wonderful experience I won’t ever forget.
RenoPat01smDuring our time with the keepers, I asked a lot of questions about captivity, the training, and the overall health of the bears living the way they do. I’ve had the back and forth arguments of conscience that many animal lovers have when it comes to wildlife in captivity. Is it cruel? Is it necessary? Would these animals be better off in the wild?

Some people have asked me how I can support zoos with my artwork and accuse me of selling out at the expense of the animals. In our social media ‘judge first, ask questions later’ culture, I’m used to this and dismiss that sort of thing. It’s not worth my time to argue with people who are more interested in telling you their opinion than having an intelligent discussion.

What people often fail to do is ask questions, in order to examine both sides of the argument. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that animals in captivity, with the proper oversight and safeguards in place, offer valuable insight, especially when it comes to research, conservation and species at risk. Exposure to wildlife fosters empathy, especially in children. That empathy will hopefully later translate to a greater consideration for the world around us, something of which is currently in short supply.

Without going into great detail, I am personally satisfied that Discovery Wildlife Park is doing right by the animals in their care. Most are orphans or rescues and the only life they’ve known is at the park. Had they remained in the wild, they would have died. Returning them to the wild would have the same result. The life expectancy of an animal in captivity receiving top notch care and enrichment far exceeds that of one in the wild.

One thing is clear to me about this facility. These animals are loved. While the chain link fence separated us from the bears, the keepers were able to move about freely with them. In many cases, they’ve raised them and all of the training has been through positive reinforcement. I’d like to talk more about the reason for the training, but will save that for another post.

The facilities are clean, well maintained and the enclosures are large. For some of their animals, their spaces appear smaller, but from asking questions, I found out that there’s a good reason for that.

I’m a sucker for animals and when I see one hurt, injured or abused, it bothers me a great deal. I would not be able to support this park if I thought any of their practices were harming the animals that live there.

I plan to return often.
BearPose
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Gathering Reference

    DSC_0534 I always look forward to visiting the animals at the Calgary Zoo. While it’s true that I can easily justify spending two or three hours at the zoo to take photo reference, it always feels like I’m getting away with something, because it never feels like work. Almost like I might as well be slacking off to go see a movie.  If I lived in Calgary, I’d spend a lot more time at the zoo, I’m sure, but the drive there and back takes just under three hours in good traffic, so I usually try to combine it with errands that are bringing me to the city anyway.  Fortunately, yesterday’s errand was a meeting AT the zoo, which was pretty convenient.  Or planned.  I’ll never tell.

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Yesterday, I took a few hundred photos and ended up with about ten that I wanted to keep. The beauty of a digital camera is that you can just keep shooting and sort them all out later, knowing full well that the vast majority will end up in the trash. I usually try not to have an agenda, so I make the rounds knowing that the best photos will be the ones where the animals are cooperating.

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It was a hot day, so the lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!) and other large animals were either hiding in the shade or just being lazy and lethargic in the sunshine. Who can blame them? So, weather does factor into it.  One Totem I really want to paint in the future is a red panda, and even though they were out and active enough, and I took a lot of photos, none of them were good. Same situation with a few of the other animals I was after. Bad angles, bad light, bad photographer.

But I did manage to get a few that I like, including the ones you see here. While none of them are good enough to be the prime reference for a finished painting, I plan to be doing a lot of sketching and painting studies in the future and these will do just fine for those. It is my plan that before too long, I’ll be able to create a book of my animal work, which means I’ll need to draw and paint a lot more of it.

Any excuse to go to the zoo.

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