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Bryce Casavant, a Vancouver Island conservation officer has been suspended without pay, pending a performance investigation for refusing to put down a pair of bear cubs near Port Hardy last weekend.

Two black bear cubs and the British Columbia conservation officer who disobeyed an order to kill them have become the focus of an international campaign to save his job.

The cubs, now named Athena and Jordan, were resting quietly at an animal rehabilitation centre on Vancouver Island Wednesday, while outside the confines of their pen a protest was growing about the policies of the B.C. government.

Ricky Gervais, a British comedian and actor who uses his fame to campaign for animal rights, alerted his nine million Twitter followers to the issue Wednesday.

"Reinstate this honourable man," Mr. Gervais wrote after reading news reports about how Bryce Casavant, a conservation officer on northern Vancouver Island, had been suspended for saving the cubs after their mother was shot for raiding a freezer at a mobile home near Port Hardy.

Mr. Casavant's suspension drew a lot of media attention in B.C. and sparked an online petition that soon had 12,000 signatures.

But after the tweet by Mr. Gervais, the number of petition signatures soon soared to more than 50,000.

Mr. Gervais, who recently launched a scathing campaign to stop the controversial Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China, could not be reached for comment. But on his Facebook page he has said this of himself: "Animals don't have

a voice. But I do. A loud one … and I'll never shut up while they suffer."

About the time he was tweeting about the bear cub story, the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (COS) was holding a news conference in Victoria.

"This is a very unfortunate situation that conservation officers were forced to intervene and destroy a sow bear that was in conflict," said Chris Doyle, acting deputy chief of the COS. "It's a situation that no conservation officer wants to be in, but … it is at times necessary for conservation officers to protect public safety as well as look after animal welfare [and] to destroy problem animals such as bears and cougars."

The mother bear was shot because it was a threat to humans. But rather than kill the bear cubs as he was ordered to do, Mr. Casavant captured them, had them inspected by a veterinarian and then dropped them off at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.

Mr. Doyle said he could not answer questions about Mr. Casavant's suspension because of privacy laws.

"We're investigating the circumstances of that situation and all the actions that took place, and I'm not going to comment further on the personnel issue," he said.

He said "the preference is to keep the bears alive and wild," but explained that bear cubs can be destroyed if they have become habituated to humans and are deemed unlikely candidates for rehabilitation. He said the cubs are "being assessed" by a provincial vet and wildlife biologist.

But Robin Campbell, the founder and manager of the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association, said he's seen enough of Athena and Jordan to know they are prime candidates for rehabilitation.

"Oh, it's looking really good. They are showing the same behaviour as all the others they are in with. As far as we're concerned, there's no real reason [to order them killed]," he said.

Mr. Campbell said the centre has released about 200 bears back to the wild over the past 20 years, and only two have come back into conflict with humans.

He praised Mr. Casavant, saying "he's a very efficient, very professional" conservation officer who has brought in animals before.

"Bryce knows not to send a bad bear down to us, showing bad behaviour, because it'll affect the other bears," he said. "He did the right thing."

Athena and Jordan are being kept with other cubs – Helen, Paddington, Carl and Patty – who were brought in this spring. The bears are kept largely isolated from humans so they don't become habituated. They will be released next summer or fall.

Sylvia Dolson, executive director of the Get Bear Smart Society, said the whole incident wouldn't have happened if the cubs' mother hadn't been drawn to forage around homes in Port Hardy.

"A big part of the story should be prevention," she said. "That mother's life could have been saved through preventative measures. People need to take responsibility for the role they play in creating conflict [with bears], so they need to be taking care of their garbage and bird seed and barbecue grease and fruit trees and all of that stuff."

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