Cop Stumped When Baby Bear Refuses To Move, Looks Closer And Realizes He Has To Act Fast
What would you do if you encountered a family of bears in the road? What if one of them needed help?
That’s exactly what happened to New Hampshire state trooper Thomas Owens. How do you think he responded to this perilous situation?
Like any of us, Officer Owens must have been filled with dread in that moment. But he decided to put another’s life before his own. In the face of danger, Owens pushed aside his fear and let his sense of compassion and duty rule the day.
Read on for more details about this modern day hero – and why his courageous act to save an adorable baby bear was part of something much bigger than a single person or animal.
As a state trooper, Officer Owens spends a good part of his workday patrolling New Hampshire’s roads and highways. Since New Hampshire is largely a rural state, the view from his patrol car probably looks like this quite often – wide open country and clear roads.
When a state trooper like Officer Owens does encounter something or someone in the road, it’s usually a person in a car. If they are speeding, the trooper will stop and probably ticket them too. After all, a trooper’s job is to keep his or her community safe.
Of course, law officers serve their communities in many ways, such as providing assistance when needed. In this photo, for example, the trooper appears to be giving directions to a lost driver.
But on one early May day, Officer Owens encountered a situation that was not at all typical. In fact, it was extremely dangerous.
As Owens was driving down a familiar road, something up ahead suddenly caught his eye. He slammed hard on the brakes to avoid colliding with whatever this was.
With a closer view, he realized what he was looking at: a full-grown black bear!
Now, a bear sighting itself isn’t all that remarkable for a New Hampshire trooper. After all, the state is home to about 5,000 bears. Furthermore, many of the state’s bears live in the White Mountain National Forest, which is Officer Owens’s patrol area.
So, other than not wanting to plow into this bear, Owens was not particularly excited about the encounter. . . yet.
But on even closer inspection, Owens saw something remarkable: it was an entire bear family! He now knew that the adult bear he first saw must be the mama, and he counted four baby bears scooting across the road with her.
Since black bears are generally solitary, seeing a whole family was truly exciting!
It must have been a very charming sight, seeing this mama bear crossing the road with four little cubs trotting along behind. But Owen then noticed something else – something very concerning.
One cub was struggling to keep up with the others. The mother was clearly distressed and trying to keep her cubs together. But the fourth cub wasn’t complying.
The mama worked patiently to encourage the little bear to come along. She nudged him with her nose, and demonstrated how to walk back and forth across the road. But he was struggling even to stand up, let alone walk. Eventually the little cub just sat down in the road and wouldn’t move.
Officer Owens was growing more and more concerned about the situation, and what happened next confirmed his fears: the mother bear walked back off the road and continued on her way, with three cubs following along. . . and one cub left abandoned in the road.
Officer Owens took in this heartbreaking scene and knew he had to do something. The mother bear would not have abandoned the cub unless he was seriously sick or injured. This little bear needed help – urgently.
His instinct was to get out of the car to come to the cub’s aid. But he knew that taking such an action would put him in serious, even life-threatening danger.
The risk Officer Owens faced is that the mother bear might return for the cub. While black bears are not typically aggressive, there are exceptions. One is hunger. The other is a female bear protecting her young.
Mother bears are capable of fighting off most potential predators. Even cougars are expelled when an angry mama bear discovers they are stalking her cubs.
Fortunately for the little cub, Officer Owens decided to act.
Owens jumped out of the car and scooped up the baby cub to get him off of the road. Then he called New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife to alert them to the situation. When they arrived, Owens drove with them back to their animal rehabilitation center so he could stay with the sick little cub as long as possible.
It was a huge relief for Officer Owens to deliver the cub to the Fish and Wildlife rehabilitation center, where he knew the animal would be well-cared for.
He knew that the sickly cub would have had no chance of survival on his own. Even healthy black bear cubs are dependent on their mothers until they are about one and a half years old, when they finally venture off to find their own home range.
It’s important to note that it isn’t just parental abandonment that causes bear cubs to be orphaned. Humans are frequently to blame.
Activities like commercial land development, hunting, and vehicle and train accidents cause bear fatalities. And when a mother bear is killed, orphans are left behind.
Before rehabilitation centers were established, orphaned baby bears were often killed. Those that weren’t euthanized had to be kept in captivity for the remainder of their lives – because reintroducing a bear back into the wild was too challenging. Thanks to the conservation movement of the last few decades, there is a better option today.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers like this one in New Hampshire operate care and release programs with remarkable success rates. Studies show that American black bears who are rescued, cared for, and released have the ability to function behaviorally as wild bears. Amazingly, survival rates for orphaned bear cubs are almost on par with those of wild cubs.
Officer Owens could breathe easier now, knowing that the little cub had a strong chance of survival and ultimately, a successful return to his natural forest habitat.
Owens had reason to be proud, as well. By putting himself in danger to rescue this animal, he had acted with courageous kindness. This was an act of true service to the community – animals included.
You can see in the first photo that Officer Owens truly relished the moment. He even invited a fellow trooper buddy to come down and meet the little cub too.
Before the officers said their thanks and goodbyes to the wildlife center workers, they learned something incredible: there were actually five little cubs. And the fifth one had been abandoned by the mother earlier that same day.
After rescuing the first cub, Fish and Wildlife officials had decided to do a sweep of the area to assess the situation. When they found the sick cub all alone deep in the woods, they immediately brought him back to the rehab center for treatment.
No one knows for sure what animals feel, but it was surely a sweet reunion for these two orphaned bears.
Once the cubs fully recover, they’ll be returned to their wilderness home.
Interestingly, this family of five sibling cubs is somewhat unusual. A typical black bear litter is two or three cubs.
Female black bears (called sows) give birth in January or early February, after a seven to eight month gestation period. As we know, Officer Owens encountered the sick cub in early May – which means these baby bears were just three months old at the time they were orphaned.
Black bear cubs are born with downy, grayish hair and underdeveloped hindquarters. Cubs don’t open their eyes or walk until they’re a little over a month old. They’re dependent on their mother’s milk for the first seven months and don’t reach independence until 16–18 months old.
Newborn cubs weigh about eight ounces and measure approximately eight inches in length. But they grow very quickly. They are two pounds by six weeks, five and a half pounds by eight weeks, 40-60 pounds by six months, and 80 pounds by their first birthday. And they keep on growing until age five!
The adult weight of an American black bear varies depending on age, gender and health, as well as location: East Coast black bears tend to be heavier than their West Coast counterparts. The season is another factor: in the fall, prior to entering their winter den, a bear will weigh approximately 30% more than when they emerge in the spring.
Adult males typically weigh between 126–551 lbs., while females weigh 33% less at 90–375 lbs. The biggest wild American black bear ever recorded was a Canadian male captured in November of 1972, who weighed an estimated 1,100 lbs. and measured 7.9 ft long!
Black bears have five toes with non-retractable claws on each foot, which also helps with tree climbing. Just like humans, they walk on the soles of their feet.
They are quite sure-footed and can run remarkably fast: up to 30 miles per hour!
American black bears are highly dexterous. They’re capable of opening screw-top jars, manipulating door latches (and, as this little fellow demonstrates, even making phone calls!)
They are also quite strong physically. They’ve proved able to kick over rocks weighing 310 to 325 pounds with a single leg kick!
American black bears have better eyesight and hearing than humans.
However, their keenest sense is smell, which is about seven times more sensitive than a dog’s.
The American black bear is also quite a sharp animal.
Experiments have shown them capable of learning to discriminate between colors even faster than chimps and just as fast as dogs. Similarly, black bears can learn how to distinguish various shapes with impressive speed.
Interestingly, black bears are not always black. In fact, only about 70% of all American black bears are true to their name.
The moisture content of the climate is one factor: in damper climates such as New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee and Michigan, black is the predominant color. In Washington State, bears on the damp western coast are 99% black, whereas those in the arid eastern part of the state are only 21% black.
Many American black bears in western North America are cinnamon, blonde or light brown in color. As a result, they may sometimes be mistaken for grizzly bears.
But there are actually quite a few distinct characteristics that help distinguish between a black bear who is brown in color on the one hand, and a grizzly or other type of brown bear on the other.
Grizzlies and other types of brown bears can be distinguished by their pronounced shoulder hump and broader, “dish-shaped” skull that yields a curved facial profile. They are also quite a bit larger: a grizzly stands three to five feet on all fours, whereas a black bear stands two to three and a half feet.
Brown bear fur is also much more shaggy and coarse. Black bear fur is softer, with dense underfur.
While much less common than the brown/cinnamon variation, American black bears can also have a silvery-gray coat.
Called glacier bears, these striking animals are only found along a portion of coastal Alaska and British Columbia in the Yakutat Bay region.
Rarer still is the white to cream-colored Kermode bear, found only in the coastal islands and the adjacent mainland of southwestern British Columbia. Although there are many more black Kermode bears, only 100-500 of this rare black bear subspecies is white.
Kermode bears are an important part of the oral traditions of the local indigenous peoples, who refer to the animals as “spirit bears”.
Albino specimens have also been recorded.
This bear family’s home range in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is a typical American black bear habitat: heavily vegetated, mountainous (1,300 to 9,800 feet in elevation) forests.
In the Northeastern U.S., bears favor forests with hardwood canopies of beech, maple, and other coniferous trees that yield plentiful acorns and other edible droppings.
American black bears are omnivores and will at times leave their forest homes in search of food.
Black bears are typically timid and try to avoid humans as much as humans try to avoid them. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t enter towns and neighborhoods if there is an easy food source.
The majority of American black bears live in forests and remote wilderness or rural regions. However, they can adapt to peri-urban areas created by the sprawl from cities. As long as there is some vegetative coverage and readily accessible food, bears can make it work!
Bears who live near human settlements are almost entirely nocturnal.
In contrast to the arboreal habitat of the American black bear, grizzlies and other American brown bears tend to favor more open areas such as meadows and valleys. One explanation for these different habitats is that American black bears are actually not closely related to brown bears or polar bears.
Despite living in North America, American black bears are more closely related to Asian black bears than they are to their continental cousins. In fact, American and Asian black bears are genetically closer than any of the eight other modern bear species. The sun bear (seen above) is also a relatively recent split from the genetic American/Asian black bear lineage.
Another theory behind this habitat discrepancy between black and brown bears is that black bears adapted to their thickly wooded, arboreal habitat as a self-protection mechanism.
Black bears, which are the smallest North American bear, evolved alongside larger and more aggressive species such as grizzly bears and the now extinct giant short-faced bear. These bigger species, along with larger non-ursine predators such as Smilodon and the American lion, monopolized more open areas – driving black bears up into the trees.
For the most part, American black bears are not subject to significant predation by other species. In addition to their densely forested, arboreal habitat, black bears avoid potentially hostile encounters through behavioral modifications. For example, black bears will switch to more diurnal activities when living close to more nocturnal brown bears. Still, violent and sometimes fatal interactions have been recorded in Yellowstone National Park.
American black bears are not totally free of predatory threats from other species either. In the southern range, for example, evidence of jaguar attacks includes the recently discovered carcass of an adult sow with puncture marks in her skull.
American black bear cubs, on the other hand, are much more vulnerable to predation than adults. Bear cub predators include bobcats, coyotes, cougars, gray wolves, brown bears and other bears of their own species. There is even record of a golden eagle snatching a young bear cub.
Many of these predators will stealthily pluck small cubs right out from under a sleeping mother. If she wakes up, however, the would-be raptor faces a mighty fierce opponent.geology.com
This map shows the current distribution of the three North American bear species: black, grizzly and polar. The black bear is by far the most widely distributed of the three.
The overall population of American black bears in the United States is estimated to range between 339,000 and 465,000. Across the North American continent, they inhabit 32 of the 50 states and 11 of the 12 Canadian provinces. Particularly large populations are in Alaska (300,000+), California (25,000-35,000), Washington (25,000) and Idaho (20,000).
With an overall population of nearly one million, the American black bear is the world’s most common bear species – by far. In fact, there are twice as many American black bears in the world as there are all other bears combined!
Because of this impressive population, the American black bear is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a least-concern species. The brown bear also enjoys this status. Unfortunately, the six other bear species are considered by the IUCN to be globally threatened with extinction.
However, the American black bear did not always enjoy such a secure existence as a species.
Before European colonization, the black bear population blanketed the continent. Some indigenous tribes engaged in subsistence hunting, but their use of the animals was sustainable. In many other native cultures, bears have traditionally been viewed with spiritual reverence and figure prominently in traditional mythology as symbols of strength and wisdom .
Beginning with the earliest European settlement of North American, the black bear population went into a free fall. Colonizers viewed black bears as dangerous pests, killing untold numbers to reduce damage to crops and livestock.
Governments often paid a bounty to encourage the killing of black bears.
As colonial settlements expanded in the 1700s, huge swaths of forested lands started being wiped out indiscriminately for agricultural use.
This widespread habitat destruction became an increasingly devastating threat to bear populations as well.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, American black bears were hunted and killed by the thousands for their meat, fat and fur. Black bear hunts were hugely popular as well as lucrative during this period.
Historical records show that the worldwide market was huge. In 1799, for example, Quebec exported a whopping 192,000 American black bear skins.
American black bear hides weren’t the only profitable part of the animal. The animal’s fat was once a highly valued cosmetic ingredient, believed to promote hair growth and shine. Because the choicest type of bear fat (the hard, white interior fat) was difficult to harvest, many products actually had significant quantities of hog lard.
This pictured tin of bear’s grease was sold by Xavier Bazin, a prominent Philadelphia perfumer.
This relentless persecution of the American black bear continued for centuries. By the early 1900s, the species population was at its all-time lowest point.
But then, things began to shift. In the early 20th century, a nascent conservation movement – led, ironically, by big game sport hunters like Teddy Roosevelt – began to raise awareness about protecting natural lands (and their bear occupants).
President Roosevelt was a passionate big game-hunter (and big stick-toter), but he also had a genuine appreciation for the natural world. In 1902, a story circulated that Roosevelt had refused to shoot a 235-pound black bear that his entourage had wrangled and tied to a tree for him to kill.
The Washington Post published the story on its front page, along with the cartoon above and the following quote: “I’ve hunted game all over America and I’m proud to be a hunter. But I couldn’t be proud of myself if I shot an old, tired, worn-out bear that was tied to a tree.”
Apocryphal or not, this story about Roosevelt’s merciful sentiment toward a black bear sparked a change in the nation’s perspective on bears and other wild animals. “Since then, we’ve kind of developed a compassion for them culturally,” notes conservation biologist Rae Wynn-Grant. “They’re part of kids’ stories; they’re always the good guy; they have families. We like them.”
Tangible evidence of this attitudinal shift appeared quickly. After seeing the Washington Post cartoon, toymaker Morris Michtom was inspired to create the very first teddy bear – named in honor of the president himself.
The teddy bear fad caught on like wildfire. By 1906, the toy bear craze was in full swing across America and Europe. Children were photographed with their bears, and ladies even carried their teddies out in public.
President Roosevelt used a bear as a mascot in his 1904 re-election bid, and won a second term.
Adorable bear characters were soon appearing in popular culture. 1926 marked the publishing debut of one of the most famous literary bears in history: Winnie-the-Pooh.
A.A. Milne named his bear after the teddy owned by his son, Christopher Robin Milne, on whom the character Christopher Robin was based. Christopher’s bear was named for “Winnie,” an American black bear he often saw at London Zoo, and “Pooh,” a swan he had met while on holiday.
The real Winnie was originally owned by Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, who had purchased her as a cub for $20 from a hunter. He named her after his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
When Colebourn was sent to England to fight in the First World War, he snuck the cub along too. Winnie stayed at the London Zoo while he and his unit went off to fight in France in 1915. By the time the war was over, Winnie had become so beloved by the zoo’s patrons that Colebourn agreed to donate her permanently. Until her death in 1934, Christopher Milne and countless others visited her regularly.
Colonel Colebourn wasn’t alone in his seemingly eccentric choice of pets.
Here, a young girl in Seward, Alaska poses with her two adorable cubs (c. 1910-15).
Neither was Colebourn the only military man of his era with an ursine pet. In fact, there were bear companions on multiple U.S. naval ships in the early 20th century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Teddy Roosevelt was overseeing the Navy during the peak of this naval bear mascot trend.
This black bear cub was a pet on the USC&GS Surveyor. Sadly, he fell off the ship during storm.
The bear loving trend was a global phenomenon.
This Swedish postcard reads “Skating after bear cub.”
Bear mania went all the way to the top. Here, President and Mrs. Coolidge are introduced to two friendly bears during a visit to Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s.
The park’s superintendent reportedly tried several times, unsuccessfully, to engage the president in conversation about conservation.
By the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s second term, his legacy as the conservation president was firmly cemented. During his presidency, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land.
Roosevelt founded the United States Forest Service in 1905, as well as laid the groundwork for the establishment of the National Park Service after he left office.
As the agency charged with sustainable management of the nation’s forests, it’s fitting that the National Forest Service would end up choosing a bear as their mascot in the 1940s.
But the Smokey Bear character also reflects a philosophical tension that lay underneath the nascent national park and forest movements. As a cartoon-rendered, talking, blue jeans and ranger hat-sporting bear, Smokey resembles a teddy bear more than a wild animal.
This impulse to humanize, even cutesify, bears had become so ingrained in the culture that their essential wildness – and dangerousness – was nearly forgotten. Even in those places specifically designed to protect their natural environments.
Until the 1960s, America’s national parks took on a kind of theme park-quality, complete with photo ops with adorable animals. . . especially black bears.
For about 50 years after the 1916 founding of the National Park Service, inadequate regulations and lax enforcement allowed regular interaction between humans and black bears.
Visitors couldn’t get enough.
“Rangers would sort of look the other way,” according to a wildlife scientist at Glacier Park. “Up until the 1960s, it was part and parcel of the National Parks experience to see the panhandling black bears along the roads. But a lot of people got hurt.”
Savvy visitors knew the number one way to lure one of the cuddly critters in for a fun shot was with food. Some would intentionally dump bits of food, then jump back to eagerly wait, camera in hand.
For the acutely sensitive nose of a black bear, this was low hanging fruit. With an acute sense of smell that can sniff out supper from over a mile away, it was easy pickings. Both more populous and more opportunistic than grizzlies, black bears had the most frequent human interactions.
The National Park Service had been aware of the dangers of feeding wildlife since the 1930s. So why tolerate this widespread, unsafe practice?
One benevolent explanation is that the park officials simply wanted to encourage visitors. The sensational bear interactions made for great photos and were an undeniable draw for many visitors.
Now, we know better: bears do not benefit from our adoration or attempts at humanization. A bears who learns that humans equal food will always remember that connection—and may die as a result of it.
Bears die as a result of human interaction in multiple ways, including being hit by cars when they descend into populated areas and being euthanized by park managers when their behavior threatens humans.
While more black bears were impacted by human presence in parks, it was grizzly bears that sounded the alarm most loudly. In 1967, two hikers in Glacier National Park were mauled to death by grizzlies in separate incidents.
These deaths garnered significant media coverage and resulted in prompt policy changes at the Park Service. As enforcement increased over time, human injuries and fatalities due to bears in national parks began to plummet.
In addition to enforcing stricter feeding laws, wildlife management agencies have helped reduce bear mortality through behavior modification techniques.
One technique is to counteract bears’ association of people with food by producing a negative stimuli, such as blasting a siren, whenever a bear ventures too close to park campgrounds. If the siren sound isn’t effective, rangers will shoot bears with paintballs or bean bags.
This photo shows another modern wildlife management technique – but it’s not what you think. . .
Park wildlife managers trap bears for the purpose of relocating them to safer areas away from people. As shown in the previous photo, sedating the animal temporarily is sometimes necessary to execute the procedure safely.
Modern wildlife management agencies help promote sustainable human/bear coexistence through educational programs that teach practical skills such as reducing food attractants while in the wilderness.
These programs also encourage public tolerance by helping people understand that bears are not typically a threat to human safety.
So, how dangerous are American black bears? While there is no doubt that an adult black bear is very capable of killing a human being, their natural inclination is to avoid people whenever possible.
Even though there are more black than grizzly bear attacks, this is sheerly due to population size and not to innate aggressiveness. As noted above, protective mother bears are an exception to this rule; indeed, there have been a handful of horrific – and deadly – attacks.
In the very unlikely event that you do end up in a confrontation with a black bear, here are some essential tips.
A black bear confronting a human will typically posture as if an attack is imminent – but is very unlikely to actually do so. This “mock charge” behavior can include stamping their paws, emitting loud blowing noises, and even bounding forward before veering to the side. In this case, move slowly away, speaking in an appeasing voice and avoiding eye contact.
And if the black bear isn’t bluffing? THEN FIGHT BACK WITH EVERYTHING YOU HAVE! Punch and kick at the bear’s face with all of your might. Use any available weapon: rocks, branches, etc. to defend yourself.
It’s important to note that this advice only applies to black bears. In a grizzly bear confrontation, you should do something entirely different: fall to the ground and “play dead.” Lie on your stomach with your hands covering the back of your head and neck. Spread your legs and elbows wide so the bear can’t flip you over. When the attack stops, stay still for as long as it takes for the bear to leave the area.
Since the black bear population hit its low point in the early 20th century, increasing awareness and governmental protections for bears have allowed the species to slowly recover their numbers. Due to particularly strong regulations enacted since the late 1980s, many populations are now increasing!
One reason for the resurgence is active reforestation efforts, which have restored forested habitat in many parts of the U.S. In New Hampshire and the rest of New England, for example, forests have been restored almost to their pre-colonial level.
In addition to reforestation, stricter hunting regulations have also contributed to the bear population resurgence. While bear hunting is still allowed in the majority of U.S. states, bears have gained protection as a big game species and the number and sex of bears killed are now strictly regulated.
The happy ending of this story gets even better. Perhaps inspired by Officer Owens’s own compassionate service, his fellow troopers have started following suit!
Here’s a fellow New Hampshire trooper rescuing a bald eagle who had been badly injured in a car accident on the interstate highway.
New Hampshire state troopers teamed up with Fish and Wildlife officials once again to help a group of baby ducklings cross the freeway in Concord, New Hampshire. Some of the chicks were trapped in a storm drain.
All of the ducklings were rescued and delivered safely to their natural habitat: a pond.