Crates of produce clutter the floor of Tom and Cheryl Millham's garage. The freezer is packed full of fish and there's 16 cups of animal-milk formula in the fridge. The food is testament to the healthy appetites of eight growing bear cubs at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
LTWC Secretary and Treasurer Millham said he's never seen a year like this one. In addition to the eight cubs, there's still two golden eagles in the flight area and three young bobcats waiting for release. At one point there were six bobcats at the facility, another LTWC record. By this late in the season, the cages have usually emptied out.
"It just hasn't stopped. I've never had this many. In 35 years we've never seen anything like this," Millham said.
When asked for a possible reason to explain the extraordinary numbers, Millham shrugged his shoulders. Sometimes it just comes down to chance, he said.
Millham and his wife established LTWC, an animal rehabilitation center that they run from their South Shore home, in 1978. They've seen about 24,000 animals come through their doors in that time, and since 2000, when LTWC became the only certified bear rehabilitation facility in California, the Millhams have cared for 52 cubs.
Caring for eight bears is no cheap task. Millham said LTWC spends about $3,000 per month just on food for the cubs and orders about 30 crates of produce a week. The facility relies on donations, but those tend to trickle off as winter approaches.
"One of the biggest challenges is the cost. We used to get a lot of produce from Nor Cal Produce, but this year we're not getting that support. It's hitting the budget hard this year. We need people to be aware that feeding goes on through the winter," he said.
LTWC rehabilitates four cubs a season in an average year, according to Millham. Prior to this fall, the most cubs in the facility at any one time was in 2008 when the den housed seven bears, one of which was Li'l Smokey rescued from the Shasta fires.
This year the facility has taken in a bear almost every month since May when the first cub arrived. Two 15-pound siblings from Nevada County came in June, followed the next month by two males from Nevada City. And the past two weeks have seen three new arrivals.
On Oct. 4, Millham received a call. A mother bear had been hit and killed by a car on Highway 89 just south of Luther Pass, and her two young cubs were in a tree nearby.
Millham worked with wildlife and law enforcement officials to sedate the cubs and safely transfer them to cages. At 59.8 pounds, the male weighed about double the 27.5-pound female.
"What we're not able to understand is, if they're siblings, why one was twice as big as the other one. It's possible the mom adopted one. That happens sometimes in the wild," Millham said.
Millham transferred the larger of the two bears to the bear den with the five other cubs and, even though the bear was outweighed and outnumbered, he proceeded to assert his dominance.
"He's taking charge. He's the newest one, but the others don't want to mess with him. Maybe it's because he was in the wild so long," Millham said.
The smaller female went to the former-bobcat cage where she was joined on Oct. 16 by an 11-pound cub from Ojai, the newest addition to the LTWC family.
The Ojai bear spent about a week under the care of Duane Tom, the director of animal care at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, where he discovered only minor bumps and bruises on the cub.
"Initially she was pretty alert. I did a quick look at her, and she charged the door. She was pretty spunky," Tom said.
She was very thin - she only weighed 9 pounds when she arrived at the CWC - but still active. Tom sent her to LTWC two pounds heavier and doing well. Cheryl Millham put her on a mixture of animals' milk and Gerber peaches to help the cub gain weight when she arrived in Tahoe.
The Millhams will feed both of the smaller females throughout the winter instead of putting them in hibernation come December. And, while Millham said he hopes to release the six larger bears in January, the other two will live in the facility until spring.
"It's been a very different year. We've never had this many animals this late. We usually get one bobcat every three to five years, so it's three times normal this year. It's just amazing that we had bear cubs after Labor Day. Winter is our slow time usually," Millham said.