The brown bear sow (Ms. Hook) that trusted us to babysit her two spring cubs for approximately 20 minutes.
The spring cubs occasionally look back to observe us, but for the most part seemed completely comfortable with being "cached" with Homo sapiens. All photos by Scott W. Michael.
In the last bear post (click here to read), we looked at how mother bears will utilize the presence of human groups to increase their level of security while nursing their young – a indicator of their ability to learn and their behavioral plasticity. Last year (2007) in Katmai, our group was able to witness an even more amazing phenomenon, related to sows and dependent cubs. This behavior has been dubbed as “cub-caching.” During this behavior, instead of moving close to human groups to nurse, the sow will approach a hominid cluster with her cubs, and then leave her offspring with the humans while she goes off to fish among the other bears. That’s right, they employ our species to babysit their youngsters! Quite a contrast to the mother bear described in my last posting that attacked the two hikers in Glacier National Park, eh (click here)? Once again, the root cause is the fact that some large boars have an aversion to us and at least some sows have learned to take advantage of it. By leaving their young cubs near a group of people, the sows can go fish without putting their offspring at risk of being attacked by other bears.
During my stay at Katmai National Park, our group experienced cub caching on three separate occasions. Our first experience with this behavior went something like this: mother bear (dubbed Ms. Hook) came sauntering along a tributary that snaked from the river mouth to the sea, with two small shapes trotting along some distance behind her. The two cubs were lagging behind, occasionally stopping to sniff the sand and to pick-up bits of debris (e.g., shells) in their mouths. When the sow was adjacent to our little clump of humanity (about 4 m away) she stopped and waited for her kinder to catch-up. When they did, she abruptly vocalized and the two cubs plopped down on the wet sand. I assume the vocalization was their cue that we were in charge for while. Mother bear then proceeded to head for the prime fishing area, 60 to 80 yards further along and into the estuary, and join the other bears that were already chasing and jumping on their illusive quarry. So there we were, 3 to 4 m from two winsome spring cubs that were not at all concerned about the gawking band of two-legged, one-eyed anthropoids (that one- eye was the lenses protruding from the camera that are faces were pressed up against)! The cubs simply sat on their haunches and watched their mother leave, they turned to check us out, one laid back in repose, they checked out debris in the sand – in short, they were ideal little charges!
After five minutes or so, they moved along in front of us (much to the delight of the photographers as they had originally parked themselves between us and the sun) and sat down side-by-side with their backs facing us. They remained there until a big pulse of salmon entered the estuary mouth and all hell broke loose with the adult bears chasing fish in various directions. The sudden commotion startled the little bears, which ran past us and took up a position behind our group. They remained there for a little while longer until mom came back to pick them up.
I could not believe what I had just witnessed - I had read about it, but to actually see it happen was mind altering! To have this powerful, often misunderstood mother, entrust us with her seven month old offspring while she went off to catch her supper! The photos above were all shot during our first baby-sitting (cub-caching) encounter. That 20 minute period was worth the cost of the entire trip and was no doubt my most memorable wildlife encounter!
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael