04/03/2012 01:53 EDT | Updated 06/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Celebrity bear cub seized from Manitoba home, taken to zoo while fate decided

ST. MALO, Man. - Conservation officials have seized a black bear cub rescued and taken home last month by a man in southern Manitoba.

Makoon, who has become a bit of a celebrity in southern Manitoba, is now biding his time at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg while government officials try to find him a new home in Ontario.

"I feel like crying," Rene Dubois said Tuesday afternoon, after a conservation officer and a biologist came to his house in St. Malo and loaded the cub up in a cage.

The 63-year-old said he was told he can't visit the bear at the zoo but was given a phone number to call so he could check on his condition.

Dubois said it was a heart-wrenching good-bye that he wasn't prepared for, but he's glad the cub is going to a place where he'll be well taken care of.

"At least he'll have a chance," Dubois said.

The retired construction worker found the bear March 25 starving in a ditch along the highway outside of St. Malo, a community about 70 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

He and his wife have been nursing him back to health, feeding him milk and formula from a baby bottle, as well as honey and fruit. The cub is about the same size as their pet Chihuahua, Tootsie.

Dubois said he contacted a conservation official to take the bear but was told it would be destroyed. So he decided to keep the bear and find another solution.

He had been in talks with the Bear With Us sanctuary in Sprucedale, Ont., which had agreed to rehabilitate the cub as long as he could be released next summer back into the forests of Manitoba.

But that plan appears trapped in government red tape.

A spokesman with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship says releasing the cub back into the wild is not an option, because he has had too much human contact. Hundreds of people have showed up at Dubois's door in the past week asking to hold the cub and take photos.

The spokesman said officials are talking with two facilities in Ontario about keeping the animal for good.

Mike McIntosh, the operator of Bear With Us, said the Manitoba government's thinking is "illogical."

"There's the misconception that once a bear is cared for by people, it'll become conditioned or habituated and no longer releaseable. And that's not true."

He said there's still time to rehabilitate the bear, if a decision is made quickly. The bear, roughly eight weeks old, hasn't yet been affected by human contact, said McIntosh, but by mid-May, he's going to be more aware of his environment.

"That's when the cubs become much more alert and mobile and they fear everything that's not their mother."

McIntosh has rehabilitated more than 300 black bears and released them into the wild in Ontario. About 10 years ago, he helped two cubs from Manitoba and was allowed to send them back.

"At that time, the regulations (in Manitoba) weren't quite as detailed."

He said he has already received permission from the Ontario government to bring Makoon to his sanctuary, on the condition he be sent back to Manitoba when he's old enough to make it on his own.

McIntosh said he spoke earlier with a Manitoba conservation officer who agreed to the plan but had to "go up the ladder."

Tim Sinclair-Smith, director of zoological operations for the Assiniboine Zoo, said the cub is staying in its veterinary hospital because it needs around-the-clock care and still needs to be bottle-fed. The facility doesn't have room to keep the bear permanently.

In February, the zoo allowed conservation officers to bring in a malnourished female bear cub, about one year old, rescued from the Whiteshell region. A special decision was made to keep the cub in its polar bear exhibit until another zoo could be found to take it.

Sinclair-Smith said members of the public need to be discouraged from rescuing injured, wild animals.

"It pulls at your heartstrings. You want to help, and it's people's nature to do that. But sometimes it doesn't help, especially when the placement for these animals is very few and far between.

"So sometimes, unfortunately, we have to let nature take its course."

— by Chris Purdy in Edmonton