Angelika Langen regrets she didn't act when the signals stopped coming from a radio collar on Clover, a rare white bear who has become the focus of a debate in British Columbia over captive wildlife.
Had the director of the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, near Smithers, gone to investigate, she feels she might have kept the bear out of trouble. Instead, Clover broke into a shelter looking for food, was captured and is now facing a life as the starring attraction in the B.C. Wildlife Park in Kamloops.
But Peter Hamilton, director of the animal-rights group, Lifeforce, has started a Free the Spirit Bear movement, and is urging supporters to write Premier Christy Clark.
"A rare white Spirit Bear should be protected as an endangered species NOT exploited in a barbaric menagerie," states Lifeforce in its letter to Ms. Clark. "Give this bear freedom!"
A spirit bear is a black bear with a recessive gene that produces a white coat. Clover was brought in to Northern Lights as an orphaned cub in November, 2011, after his mother was shot. He was kept over the winter, fitted with a radio collar and released in July.
In an interview, Mr. Hamilton said Clover was falsely accused of being a nuisance bear and that the 18-month-old animal entered a bush camp only because it had been previously baited by people who wanted to take its picture.
"We've got to give the bear the opportunity for freedom, not lock it up just because some idiot started feeding it," Mr. Hamilton said.
However, Ms. Langen, who is pioneering methods for rehabilitating orphaned bears and returning them to the wild, says Clover is better left where he is.
"I have spoken to Mr. Hamilton a couple of times and I recognize his intentions are genuine and well meant to have this bear go back in the wild. I personally believe that in Clover's case, that that window has closed," Ms. Langen said. "We had that opportunity and in some ways we have to take responsibility for what's happened. If we'd have gone looking right away on the 13th [of October] when the signals stopped, then maybe we could have prevented it… we could have put a trap out before he got into trouble."
Ms. Langen's facility has handled 267 bears – only three of them white – over the past two decades, successfully returning most of them to the wild.
She said orphaned cubs are kept in isolation at Northern Lights and allowed contact with only one caretaker during their stay. The theory she has developed at the facility is that a cub will think of its lone keeper as a mother – and in the spring, it is ready to separate from its surrogate parent, just as it would from a natural one. She said the bears are not imprinted on humans, and remain wary.
"We've been doing this for 22 years.… we've had no reports of problem bears [before now] …. so we know it works," she said.
Ms. Langen has recently started putting radio collars on released black bears. Clover was one of the first being tracked. For three months she followed his every move, as he travelled across the landscape near Smithers. Then his signals stopped.
Ms. Langen didn't go immediately to investigate, thinking the signal was blocked in a narrow valley. Seven days later the signal resumed, but it wasn't moving. "We were instantly alarmed because that either means a dead bear or a lost collar," she said.
When she did go to investigate, she found an archeological camp had unexpectedly been set up in the bush near where Clover had been released. The dropped collar was located nearby.
"When we got there, we thought, 'oh, this is not good. We should probably re-collar him and move him to a place where he is not so close to all the people,'" Ms. Langen said.
But it was too late. By then Clover, who Ms. Langen believes was fed by people in the camp, had broken into a shelter. Conservation officers trapped him a second time. Had he been black, Ms. Langen said, "he would have been shot on sight" for posing a risk to humans. She thinks he was spared because he is white, and incredibly rare.
Ms. Langen said it appears Clover has come to see humans as sources of food, so she agreed when the provincial government suggested he be placed in the B.C. Wildlife Park.
"There's no question about this. Letting him back out again would probably cause recurrence," she said.
Glenn Grant, general manager of the B.C. Wildlife Park, said there is only one other spirit bear in captivity in the world and he expects Clover to be a star attraction.
"I anticipate enormous public interest," he said. "It's hard to quantify in dollars or visits, but we know there will be tour companies that will want to come to Kamloops to see this bear."
Mr. Grant said the park is planning to raise $500,000 to build a new bear facility, in which Clover will be housed after he emerges from hibernation next spring.