Family, Rehab Center Save Drought-Stressed Cub From Starvation

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It's unusual for the phone to ring at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday at the Diamond Point home of John and Deloris Bilyk.

But what the caller, a neighbor who had just returned from a hike, had to say was even more unusual. She called to tell the Bilyks they had a visitor: a bear cub who was perched in one of the trees in their expansive 2.5-acre yard.

That was last week, and what has happened since is an odyssey Deloris Bilyk could never have dreamed in those hours before she awoke that Sunday morning.

"I immediately went outside, but I was worried that the mother might be close by," Bilyk said. "So I climbed up on the roof so I could see her if she was around."

She didn't find the mother, but Bilyk located the cub and watched him for awhile. "He was very thin, dehydrated and seemed pretty docile," she said. "At one point he even fell asleep in the tree."

After making several phone calls for assistance, Bilyk finally got a hold of Arizona Game and Fish and an agent was dispatched.

"He estimated that the cub was very young, maybe 4 to 5 months old, and that he weighed maybe 45 to 50 pounds, which was about 30 pounds underweight," she said.

The agent also said the cub wouldn't survive on its own without its mother. "They usually stay with their mother for two years," Bilyk said.

By then, Bilyk and her two children, Jamie, 10, and Christopher, 11, had given the bear a nickname: Cubby. They were beginning to get attached to the little guy.

"We kind of felt responsible for his predicament. After all, we live in his forest," she said.

The Game and Fish agent used a tranquilizer gun to subdue Cubby, who soon fell asleep in the tree. "But he fell backward and caught his foot, so we had to get him down with a ladder," Bilyk said.

When the agent left with Cubby, Bilyk made him promise to call her later with the bear's whereabouts. An hour later he called to tell her a volunteer from the Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation was meeting him at Rye to take Cubby to their 10-acre facility on Pinnacle Peak Road in Scottsdale.

The man who picked Cubby up in Rye was Daryl Abbott, a volunteer for Southwest Wildlife. Abbott later told Bilyk the tranquilizer wore off on the way to Scottsdale and the famished bear made quick work of a watermelon he had bought in Rye.

Abbott also told her a lot about Southwest Wildlife, a non-profit organization that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife native to Arizona, and in educating today's youth on the importance of native wildlife and the environment.

Bilyk decided to go see for herself.

"This little guy stole my heart, so I had to go see how he was adapting. What Southwest Wildlife is doing is really incredible," she said. "I felt in awe and very humbled by the experience.

"Daryl himself is a great example. He's a retired guy and he and his wife are doing this to pay back the earth. The entire place is run by volunteers like him, and they operate solely on donations.

"They take a lot of animals from our area," Bilyk said. "There is no other agency serving the Rim country, so I don't know what we'd do without them."

Linda Searles, the director of Southwest Wildlife, is an Arizona native who grew up enjoying wildlife.

"Providing surgery for coyotes with shattered hips, foxes with splintered legs, raccoons with dog bites, and ringtails with shotgun wounds is all in a day's work for us," Searles said. "In fact, the foundation has treated every Arizona animal you can think of, and has successfully released over 90 percent of them back into the wild. They include foxes, mountain lions, raccoons, bobcats, bats, bears, beavers, porcupines, owls, redtail hawks, deer, javelina, coyotes and skunks."

But what Searles is most proud of is Southwest Wildlife's education program.

"Our educational goal is to give young people a new appreciation of wildlife and to stimulate their awareness and increase their appreciation for the animals that live around them.

"We bring native Arizona animals that cannot be released right into their classrooms," she said, "and we work closely with teachers to cover areas that are relevant to their course of study."

Southwest Wildlife also offers programs for adult audiences.

"We have slide shows, and we have a wonderful display that contains photographs of many of our native animals," she added, "and everyone, regardless of age, enjoys our track and scat board."

But with more and more habitats disappearing, Southwest Wildlife's most urgent mission remains caring for animals. Working with many private, community and governmental agencies, the foundation has rehabilitated more than 1,500 sick, injured and abandoned wild animals since 1994.

"At Southwest Wildlife, every animal is given a second chance," Searles said. "If an animal can't be released, we either keep it or place it in another facility like the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson."

As you might imagine, a volunteer, nonprofit organization like Southwest Wildlife is always in need of contributions and donations.

"We can use just about everything," Searles said. "Donations of money, land, building materials, even airline crates for shipping pets, are greatly appreciated and much needed."

The Bilyks, for example, own Main Street Paint and Decorating, and are donating a large quantity of paint to the foundation.

And what about Cubby?

"Game and Fish is going back and forth on whether to release Cubby," Bilyk said.

Searles is optimistic the animal will eventually be released, but the process is fairly complicated with bears.

"We will keep it through next spring and summer and get it really fat, and then release it just as it's going into hibernation," she said. "We'll try to put it in an empty bear den and cover the entrance with pine boughs. Then when it wakes up, there will be no people around, and he'll hopefully have forgotten this whole episode of his life."

Bilyk has learned a lot about the plight of Rim country bears through the experience.

"He's just too young to be released now," she said. "In fact, if we hadn't gotten him to Southwest Wildlife, he would have starved to death."

What advice does she have for Rim country residents who encounter a bear? "They are coming down (to lower elevations) because of the drought," Bilyk said. "People shouldn't freak out if they see one. They're just looking for something to eat."

Until Cubby's fate is ultimately determined, Bilyk intends to stay on top of the story.

"It's something I want to do, because this bear is from our area," he said. "He's one of us."

Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation can be reached at (480) 471-9109. Its Web site is www.southwestwildlife.org/mission.htm.

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