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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Cuddling part of counting bear cubs

Scientist checks on cubs while mama bear sleeps nearby

By Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: March 31, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
Emily Carrollo, a black bear biologist for the Pennsylvania state Game Commission, tagged and examined black bear cubs near Promised Land State Park earlier this month. (Alejandro A.
Emily Carrollo, a black bear biologist for the Pennsylvania state Game Commission, tagged and examined black bear cubs near Promised Land State Park earlier this month. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer) Photo Gallery

GREENTOWN, Pa. — Deep in the woods, down in a hole, Emily Carrollo is rooting through a jumble of warm, dark fur, looking for baby bears to cuddle.

A mother black bear, one of Pennsylvania’s largest mammals, fills up most of the den and, luckily, she’s fast asleep, thanks to hibernation and a woozy brew of tranquilizers delivered by dart.

There are approximately 15,000 black bears living in Pennsylvania, and this one found prime real estate to start a family. Some bears hibernate out in the open, under trees, or right on the ice of a frozen lake for some reason. This den is a deep dugout, camouflaged by a shroud of mountain laurel near Promised Land State Park in the Poconos.

Mom is fat and happy. It’s a tight squeeze.

“OK, that’s her butt,” Carrollo says, feeling her away around.

On this late-winter morning, Carrollo, the black bear program manager for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, led a team of biologists, game wardens, veterinarians, students, and onlookers into the forest to check up on this young family. The cubs would be weighed, have blood drawn, then be snuggled by guests for about an hour, before Carrollo put them back in.

Cub counting and cuddling trips are not open to the public.

Black bears have been spotted in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including Philadelphia, where they quickly become celebrities before they are relocated back to the wild. The occasional wanderer aside, bears typically call about three-fourths of those counties home and they’re thickest in north-central Pennsylvania. During recent hunting seasons, the most bears were taken in Lycoming County, Potter County, and Pike County, home to Promised Land State Park.

Based out of Harrisburg, Carrollo puts a lot of miles on her Game Commission truck. She can visit dozens of dens each year, counting and weighing cubs. She’s also out to dispel myths about black bears and help people live side-by-side, peacefully, with such a formidable animal.

“They’re smart. They don’t want to have a conflict with a person, so when people are like, ‘Watch out, they’re going to get you,’ that’s really not accurate,” she says. “They’re like big pussycats. They don’t want to get into a physical altercation.”

Black bears do want to get into your bird feeder, though, or your trash cans. They might even tear off a back door to devour boxes of pancake mix. This mother bear’s den wasn’t far from a residential area and the state park, which is jammed with campers grilling hot dogs and toasting s’mores every summer. It’s a lot of temptation for a bear.

“It might seem benign that a bear is messing with your bird feeder or getting into your trash cans, but that’s how it starts,” she said. “If you live in an area with bears, it’s best to just not put up bird feeders.”

Carrollo, who studied wildlife and fisheries science in graduate school at Penn State, promotes the tenets of BearWise.org, a website built by bear biologists and managers. They include traveling in groups, keeping dogs leashed, and making sure you leave no trash behind in bear country.

“If you see a bear before it notices you, don’t approach. Stand still, enjoy, then quietly move away,” BearWise advises.

Over the summer, the mother bear Carrollo and her team were visiting climbed into a research trap. The bear was tagged and fitted with a radio collar, which is how researchers found her den.

At the den, Carrollo is facedown in the snow and dirt, moving paws and legs out of the way. She pulls one cub out of the den by his scruff. The two have met before.

“Hey, buddy,” she says. “How are you doing?”

A week earlier, Carrollo placed the orphaned black bear cub in the den, hoping the mother would accept him as her own. The orphan’s ear tags dangle like earrings and he doesn’t seem happy, crying out for his adoptive mom.

“It works well. They’re actually very good foster moms,” Carrollo says of the adoption process. “And, you know, they can’t count.”