NEW SHARON, Maine — Nestled on a hillside behind their A-frame home, Dawn Brown and her husband, Michael, run the best bear rehabilitation facility you’ve never heard of.
There are no visitors queueing at the fence, waiting to get a glimpse of rollicking black bear cubs that are serving their time in a wooded 3-acre pen before being reintroduced to the wild. There is no admission fee. The public is not welcome. A sign on the steep, dirt driveway tells all who approach that they’re on a private way.
Second Chance Wildlife Inc. is not a zoo. It’s not a wildlife park. It’s more like a halfway house for wayward bears (and the occasional moose). The Browns, with guidance from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists, have built a facility designed to convince those bruins they’re not in captivity at all.
On Tuesday, the facility held six bear cubs that were orphaned this spring — triplets from Standish, twins from Enfield and a solo bear dubbed “Orlando,” who hails from Orland. Over the past 14 years, the Browns have successfully rehabilitated about 20 bears.
The bruins at Second Chance Wildlife rarely see humans. They forage for themselves. They don’t grow comfortable around people and are less apt to interact with them after they’re returned to the woods.
“The name Second Chance Wildlife is appropriate,” said Randy Cross, a DIF&W biologist who serves as field crew leader in the state’s long-term bear research project. “We’re giving these bears a second chance to live life as a wild bear, like they were meant to be, and not in a zoo or something.”
Jennifer Vashon, the DIF&W’s top bear biologist, says Second Chance Wildlife is the department’s choice when it comes to rehabilitating bears.
“Dawn is just a tremendous resource for us because she provides, I think, the best bear facility that we have in this state,” Vashon said. “Now we require the bears to come to this facility.”
But the reason the facility is so effective — bears are painstakingly isolated from humans — also presents its biggest challenge.
Who’ll help pay for the upkeep of animals they never get to see?
As it turns out, almost nobody.
“We get some donations, but not enough to cover the costs. That kind of bothers me,” Dawn Brown admitted. “People want to go to a park and see the animals. Here, I’m trying to veer away from that completely, so it’s like you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Grants are sought. PayPal donations can be made at Second Chance Wildlife’s website. A few YouTube videos of the bears also are available there. The Browns both work full-time jobs and funnel their own money into the operation. And even Cross said there’s widespread confusion about how the facility makes ends meet.
“I’m afraid that a lot of people may think that the department’s funding the whole thing,” Cross said. “That would be the logical conclusion. We’re not. We should be, but we’re not.”
So the Browns work all day, then adjourn to their hillside home, where more chores often await. They don’t take paychecks from Second Chance Wildlife, Dawn Brown said, and their 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation takes a yearly loss.
Still, they’re both committed to the animals, as they have been since 1997.
“I think I was supposed to do this for bears, for their best interest and rehab,” Dawn Brown said.
And on Tuesday, Dawn Brown enjoyed a rare treat: She actually spent time, face to face, with her clients. After three months at Second Chance Wildlife, it was moving day for three healthy bears.
Getting into the bear business
Dawn Brown didn’t have immediate success when she began rehabilitating bears. In fact, her first attempt couldn’t have gone much worse.
“My first bear actually got out on me,” she said. “The neighbor down the road saw it zoom by their feeder in the back of their house.”
At that point, Brown realized that her facility wasn’t good enough. And she vowed to do everything she could to make it the best around.
Now, according to biologists, she has succeeded. Still, Brown said she often hears people say that she shouldn’t waste her energy on what they believe is an impossible task.
“So many people have doubts about putting them back in the wild,” Brown said. “I guess what it comes down to with me is I want them to be as close to wild as they can be when they go back. Does it happen overnight like that? No. It doesn’t. It’s taken a lot of time, and it’s taken a lot of trial and errors.”
The first challenge — one that Brown feels has limited the success of some others in her field — is the natural tendency to want to spend time around the bears.
“When you first start out doing it, [you think], ‘They’re so darn cute and cuddly,’ but you’re really not doing things right [if you think that way],” Brown said. Eventually “you start pushing yourself away from the animal because you know what is the very best.”
This spring, the cubs that at Second Chance Wildlife weighed between 5 and 8 pounds upon their arrival.
“There are probably some rehabilitators who would have put them on a bottle,” Brown said. “Not on my watch. If I don’t have to, I’m not going to. They drank out of a dish. I never had to handle these cubs, except when they had ear tags put in [by biologists].
And when those ear tags were put in a couple of months back, Brown said those biologists were surprised at how wild the bears acted.
“They were like wild little grizzlies,” Brown said with a chuckle.
Which was, of course, exactly what she’d been hoping for.
“That’s my number one mission: To have them wild when they go back into the wild,” Brown said.
Moving day for the Standish Trio
In May, a Standish woman shot and killed a mother black bear while trying to scare it away from her home, Cross said. Three cubs were orphaned, collected by DIF&W staffers, and delivered to Second Chance Wildlife.
On Tuesday, after spending the summer at bear camp, they were sedated, fitted with radio collars, weighed and measured. All three Standish triplets were models of good health, according to Cross.
Brown helped Vashon and Cross handle the bears and spent any spare time bustling around, taking photos and video of the cubs. After monitoring them on remote cameras for three months, moving day is clearly a highlight of Brown’s summer.
“That’s when I get to see them. That’s when I get to hold them. I block myself off, completely from them [while they’re here]. I video them from a distance, but I’m never close,” Brown said. “So when they [are ready to be transported], it’s like, ‘Oh, cool! A bear!’”
Cross, who has handled hundreds of bears after nearly 30 years with the DIF&W, was impressed by the cubs’ growth since he’d last seen them.
“I was hoping for 45 pounds,” he told Dawn Brown as the bears were placed, one by one, on the tailgate of his state truck, each snoring gently. One weighed 45 exactly. The other two tipped the scales at 47 and 48 pounds. And on Tuesday evening, they were all headed for the North Maine Woods, where they’d begin their lives — again — as truly wild bears.
Cross nestled all three in a wooden box in the bed of his truck and planned to drive to a location in the state’s northern bear study area, about 45 minutes outside of Ashland, where they’d be released.
“I’m pretty confident the cubs will do really well,” Cross said. “They’re going to be put in a situation where there’s a lot of food available to them for the next month or two.”
The challenges that faced the bears, according to Cross, were pretty simple: The bears wouldn’t know the territory and would have to explore to find food. He was hopeful that the triplets — two females and a male — would stick together, and possibly even den together this winter.
When his field crew does den surveys during the winter, Cross will locate the triplets by homing in on their radio collars and find out how all are faring.
Cross admits that he sometimes hears people say that rehabilitating orphaned bears is a waste of state resources. He says his job is to help study and manage the bear population, not an individual bear. Still, he said he feels good whenever he gets to release another orphaned bear into the wild.
“You’ve heard about the guy who’s picking up clams and throwing them back in the water?” Cross asked. “Another guy says, ‘You’re never going to make any difference, because there’s thousands of clams here and they’re all going to die.’ The first guy picks one clam up, throws it in, and says, ‘Well, I made a difference with that clam.’”
Cross stopped and smiled.
“That’s basically what we’re doing for these bears,” he said.
And thanks to Dawn and Michael Brown, helping those bears is becoming a lot more efficient. On Tuesday, as she prepared to watch another group of bears leave Second Chance Wildlife, Dawn Brown said she always gets excited when she hands the cubs off to Cross and Vashon.
“I look at it like, ‘I can’t wait for them to go,’” Brown said. “And when they do go, I want to see them running, running into the woods.”
Just like a wild bear should.