06/19/2012 09:15 EDT | Updated 08/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Bear Cub's Release Into Wild A 'Death Sentence,' Say Critics


Makoon, an orphaned male black bear cub that was found in Manitoba earlier this spring, has been released into the wild despite opposition from those who fear the cub will not survive.

Two bears that were cared for at the Assiniboine Park Zoo have been released in a remote wilderness area of Manitoba, the provincial government announced Tuesday.

"I feel that we've done an excellent job with these two cubs and that they have a suitable chance of surviving," said James Duncan, director of conservation programs with Manitoba Conservation.

"It's a success. These animals are now back in the wild. They have a chance at being wild animals, and I think that's where they should be."

Makoon was not named specifically, but the release states that one of the bears was found in the St. Malo, Man., area and is five months old. The other bear is six months old.

Nursed back to health

Makoon attracted headlines after he was rescued by Rene Dubois in a ditch near St. Malo in March. At the time, Dubois said the cub appeared malnourished and orphaned.

Dubois and his wife named the cub Makoon, which is Cree for "little bear," and nursed him back to health with milk and formula from a baby bottle, as well as honey and fruit.

In April, Dubois said he had contacted a conservation official about taking Makoon, but was told the cub would have to be destroyed. So he said he decided to keep Makoon and find another solution.

Dubois kept Makoon for nearly two weeks until Manitoba Conservation seized the cub in early April and placed him at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo, where he was rehabilitated by staff.

Several groups, including the Winnipeg Humane Society, had spoken out in the hopes of preventing Makoon's release into the wild, arguing that the bear would not likely survive at this point.

'Virtually a death sentence'

"I don't agree with what they did, and I'm pissed off," Bill McDonald, the humane society's chief executive officer, said Tuesday afternoon.

"Six months [and] 30 pounds, [it's] virtually a death sentence for him to be out in the wilderness right now," he added.

Last week, a group of concerned Manitobans held a rally outside the zoo and delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures to the provincial legislature, expressing their opposition to the cub being sent to the wild so soon.

The group, led by Judy Stearns, had urged the province to send Makoon to a wildlife sanctuary in Ontario, or at least wait until he was older.

"I'm outraged. I'm not completely … surprised, just because the government wouldn't listen to any of us," Stearns said.

Bears' location not known

Government officials would not say when or where in Manitoba the two bears were released.

"Wildlife biologists who surveyed the area before the bears were released found a wide variety of plentiful food sources including eggs, fish and berries," the province said in a news release.

"The area is very remote, which will reduce the chances of either bear coming into contact with humans in the future."

The province added that both released cubs had learned to play, climb and forage for food during their time at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

"Both bears are in excellent condition, are quite large for their age and have been socialized with each other at the zoo," officials said in the release.

Cub 'put in harm's way'

But McDonald said a bear should ideally be between 15 and 18 months old at the time of its release, so that it is large enough to defend itself from predators.

Provincial government officials said both bears weighed more than 14 kilograms when they were released. McDonald said Makoon should weigh closer to 70 kilograms.

"He's either going to starve to death, which is not going to be pretty — it'll take him 30 to 40 days to starve to death — or he will get attacked and killed by an adult male black bear. That's the typical thing," he said.

McDonald said he is disappointed that the province did not listen to Manitobans who have raised concerns about Makoon's well-being.

"That's just not good enough to survive in the wild, and I think the province has put this bear in harm's way," he said.

Humane society considers legal action

McDonald accused the province of contravening its own animal care legislation by sending Makoon into the bush before he is ready.

The humane society's lawyers are determining if they can pursue animal-cruelty charges against the province, he added.

"This is wrong, it's a mistake," he said. "I think that the department has failed in their duty to the citizens of Manitoba."

Stearns said she is calling on Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh and his department's top officials to resign.

But Duncan argued that Makoon and the other released bear cub have a better chance of surviving than bears that have lived in the wild all along.

Wild bears that are between 12 and 18 months old have a survival rate of 30 per cent, he said.

"We do not have information on survival rates from bears that go through a longer process, but we do know that bears that have reached this stage of development have a good chance of survival, comparable to that of wild bears," he said.

Duncan added that wildlife rehabilitation is about letting animals live in the wild, not about guaranteeing their survival.

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