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July 13, 2012
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Bear cubs get second chance at life in wild at Lake Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care family got a bit bigger Friday when two orphaned black bear cubs from Nevada City arrived.

The Department of Fish and Game rescued the 5-month-old cubs in a Nevada City neighborhood after determining that the mother was dead. Officials caught and transported them to LTWC last week. Once the cubs are lice-free, they’ll be moved to another pen to join the three other cubs currently at the facility, two of whom came from North San Juan.

The North San Juan cubs arrived in early June after game officials received a tip that a man was trying to sell bear cubs at a Sierra Super Stop gas station. When the investigation broadened, the man revealed that he had shot the mother bear earlier in the week.

From the outside, Tom and Cheryl Millham’s home looks much like the other houses on the street. But wander into the backyard, and the similarities end. Not many other houses have rehabilitation pens for river otters, eagles, hawks, raccoons, bobcats, and bears just behind an unassuming white picket fence.

The Millhams run Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to returning injured and orphaned animals to the wild, from their home. Over the past 34 years, they’ve rescued 24,000 animals and released 14,000.

Tom Millham, a mortician and embalmer by trade, is no stranger to bears. He’s seen 46 of the animals come through the facility in the past 12 years, and has released 100 percent of them.

“This is a temporary home for them. If it wasn’t for us right now, these cubs would be dead. So we’re giving them a second chance at life,” Millham said.

The center is the only certified bear rehabilitation facility in California. No matter how cute and cuddly the animals look, staff at the facility keep human contact — with the exception of the friendly river otter — to a minimum. The animals don’t have names since that would show ownership, Millham said.

The first step in the rehabilitation process is putting some weight on the 25-pound cubs. Plums, grapes, peaches, Rice Krispies — a true favorite, according to Millham — and fish from local fishermen all make up the bear’s diet.

“It’s pretty well-balanced,” said Sandy McKnight, a volunteer who’s worked at the facility for 10 years.

The center will continue to feed the cubs until about the middle of November, at which point they’ll begin the hibernation process.

Staff will slowly begin to withdraw the amount of food, simulating what the bears would experience in the wild as the winter set in.

Finally, the bears will get tree branches to chew on. The bark plugs them up, Millham said. Come spring, the bears will eat the new grass, mother nature’s laxative, he said.

“The last thing that they eat is tree bark. They eat the grass in the spring, and here we go again. Scientists have no idea why this happens. If humans did this, it would kill us,” Millham said.

In January, the state will release the bear cubs in separate dens within a 50-mile radius of where they came from.

All the bears will be planted with a transmitter with a one-year battery life so the animals can be tracked.

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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jul 13, 2012 11:58AM Published Jul 13, 2012 11:57AM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.