GOLDEN, B.C. - An orphaned grizzly bear that was found near starvation six months ago headed back home to the wild in Golden, B.C., on Monday after filling up on grapes at a rehabilitation centre that nursed it back to health.
Tika, whose name means Brave One in a First Nations language, was cared for at the Northern Lights Wildlife Society, which runs a unique pilot project in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and British Columbia's forests and environment ministries.
The grizzly wandered into a backyard last December and was captured by a conservation officer and then brought to the centre in Smithers, a three-hour truck ride away, just before Christmas.
Angelika Langen, who co-owns the centre with her husband Peter, said the weak and skinny six-month-old cub weighed about 15 kilograms, about a third of what it should have weighed, when it arrived.
It had bulked up to 72 kilograms by the time it left on Monday.
Instead of hibernating, Tika spent the winter noshing on meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, dandelions and its favourite treat — grapes.
"He's a feisty little fellow," Langen said of the bear who had no trouble bossing around other grizzlies.
"We had two brothers and he was much smaller than the two brothers but he was still telling them where to go and what to do."
Perhaps Tika's superiority had something to do with its fur, which was twice as long as what the other grizzlies were sporting.
"That can have to do with the fact that he was starved so much that he couldn't change his fur as quickly as the others did," Langen said.
"He's just a cutie, he's really a nice little bear," Langen said on her way to drop Tika off in a remote part of Golden, away from humans.
The grizzly was fitted with a satellite collar and will be monitored for 18 months so researchers can determine whether releasing orphaned bears is viable.
"He is all healthy and rambunctious now so we're very excited that he recuperated this well, that we can let him go," Langen said.
"It's always a little bit of a concern because you don't know what they encounter out there. You're happy that you can give them this chance because without us being able to do this there wouldn't be an option for him at all. He would be dead, right?"
Tika is the eleventh grizzly to be rescued, rehabilitated and released into the wild by the centre since 2008 as part of the project that appears to be successful, Langen said.
Langen said she and her husband, who worked in zoos in Germany before immigrating to Canada, started the centre in 1990 after hearing about two moose that were killed when their mother was hit by a train.
She said the centre would like to follow a female bear that's been able to reproduce after it's been transferred back to the wild.
"Scientifically, that would prove they're able to mate with a wild bear and they know how to look after their own young."
The collar of one of two females already released malfunctioned and the other was removed by the bear itself after hibernation, Langen said.
"There's no easy solutions in this. It's a patience game and we'll just keep doing it until we have all the data so everybody can say it's working.
"We're hoping that the government would consider this as a normal part of its bear management plan."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare provides the centre with collars at a cost of $5,000 each for the animals returned to the wild and also pays for rescues and enclosures.
The B.C. government grants a permit for the Langens' rehabilitation centre, which takes in other animals as well and is currently caring for moose and foxes, although most of the residents are bears.
The Langens modelled their program after a similar one in Russia, and another one has since opened in India.
- By Camille Bains in Vancouver