Upstate NY couple specialize in caring for injured, sick wild bear cubs: ‘They’re so cute and cuddly’

PENNELLVILLE, N.Y. — Jean Soprano smiles and her eyes light up when she starts talking…

PENNELLVILLE, N.Y. — Jean Soprano smiles and her eyes light up when she starts talking about caring for, and rehabilitating injured or sick, wild black bear cubs.

“These animals are just so cute and cuddly. They look like a child’s Teddy bear when they come in,” she said. “Many still have to be bottle fed.”

Jean and her husband, Len Soprano, run Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation in Pennellville, one of a number of state-licensed, wildlife rehabilitation facilities across the state that care for injured or sick wildlife with the ultimate goal of getting the animals healthy and strong enough to be returned to the wild. The Sopranos specialize in birds of prey and black bears.

A black bear cub at Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center icuddles with a toy Teddy bear in Pennellville, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Jean Soprano.

The two created Kindred Kingdoms, a non-profit, in 1997. The Sopranos started off working with mammals and birds and eventually took on the rehabilitation of a sickly black bear cub brought to them by a state Department of Environmental Conservation officer.

The experience of working with their first black bear, which at the time they kept in a fenced-in, dog pen, made them quickly realize they would have up their game considerably to deal effectively with the large mammals. That included having to buiild structures on their property that mimicked bear habitat. Most importantly, they created situations that would allow them to do “blind feedings” – keeping the bears from associating humans with food, facilitating their best chances for survival when they are released back into the wild.

In 2012, the Sopranos merged with Feathers and Friends, a center dedicated to the rehabilitation of birds of prey and community education. At that time, the Sopranos changed their acceptance policy from all animals and birds to only black bears and birds of prey (eagles, hawks, owls, turkey vultures, falcons, etc.).

Today, Kindred Kingdoms, located on 40 acres behind the Sopranos’ house, contains a number of buildings and indoor and outdoor cages. Among them is a two-story “critical care” building in which the animals are initially kept and cared for, along with other outdoor structures – including a 176-foot long flight cage in which recovering raptors can fly in and several buildings built specifically for bears.

Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Len and Jean Soprano outside one of two bear habitat buildings they’ve built to keep bear cubs before they are released into the wild. At this point in the rehabilitation process, food and watear is supplied but there’s no direct physical or visual contact with the animals.

Jean Soprano has a federal license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with all migratory birds, including eagles. Her husband has a state license that allows him to rehabilitate any animal that’s indigenous to New York.

As for the bears, “We have to provide them (the bears) with the same opportunities that they would have out in the wild and its hard not to human habituate them,” she said. “Initially, we just have to handle and feed and clean them if they are ill or in need for such things as wound management. Then after that, it’s hands off. Once they leave the critical care building, they’re blind fed and we don’t have to go into their den (cages) at all.”

The Sopranos are currently caring for two bear cubs that were brought to them this spring. The following are excerpts from an interview with them:

The two bear cubs you have now, where did they come from? One came in from Woodhull in Steuben County, about seven miles from the Pennsylvania border. It was found by a DEC environmental conservation officer and its face was full of porcupine quills – most likely from a dead porcupine found nearby. It was probably a roadkill and the cub was just curious, Jean Soprano said. It had been abandoned by its mother because it couldn’t nurse. The other came from Mooers Forks in Clinton County near the New York, Canadian and Vermont borders. It had fallen from a tree and suffered head trauma. It was having seizures when it was brought in. One cub weighed 6.2 pounds; the other, 5.25 pounds.

Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Dr. Jeremy Prosser, a veterinarian at the Clear Lakes Animal Wellness Center in Brewerton. He removed porcupine quills from the cub’s face. Photo courtesy of Jean Soprano.

Do you only handle bear cubs? What about adult black bears? No. They’re too big, hard to handle. We once took in a 3-year-old. That was a mess. Currently, the only ones the DEC will bring us weigh no more than about 30 pounds.

Talk about the first black bear you rehabbed. A local conservation officer who lived nearby in Constantia called us and said he had “a little problem.” It was a 29-year-old black bear cub that had been illegally brought into the state and had been confiscated. It appeared to be sick. We had had it tested by a local veterinarian and it showed high levels of lead in its blood. We got the medicine to take care of that and it survived. But since it had been raised in captivity, he wasn’t a candidate to be released back into the wild. We called up zoos and animal sanctuaries in 19 states and three Canadian providences. We finally found a zoo in Ontario, Canada that would take him.

What’s your background? How’d you get into this? I’m a retired 5th grade teacher and worked in the Baldwinsville School District. Len is also retired and worked at BG Sulzle, a company that manufactured surgical needless. I’m 75, Len is 78. More than 30 years ago, we answered an ad for volunteers at Fulton Hidden Acres, a big wildlife rehab center in Fulton and started volunteering. The couple running it both got accepted into the Cornell Veterinary School and moved to Ithaca. They left a big nitch and we decided to fill it. There was a wildlife rehabber from the Buffalo area who at the time was handling black bear cubs. We contacted her and she was only too happy to pass on the baton. And that was more than 150 bears ago. Currently, we’re one of only two rehabbers in the state that deal with black bear cubs. The other is Barbara Runyon of Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Center in Greene County. We learned a lot (about caring for black bears) through trial and error and from a now-retired DEC wildlife biologist. They’re not that hard. They’re just big wooly mammals. ”

What do you do if one of your animals needs medical attention? It is taken to the local veterinarians willing to work with us.Not very vet will take in a bear. If the animal’s condition involves such things as broken bones or eye problems, it’s taken to the Cornell Veterinary School for treatment and eventually brought back to Kindred Kingdoms to recover.

Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Jean Soprano in the two-story, Critical Care building where injured bear cubs and birds of prey are kept when they first arrive at Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabitation Center.

What’s the most bears you’ve handled at one time? One year we had 17. We had one that wintered with us and was released in the spring. The rest then all came in after that and they all ended up being released in the counties where they came from. In 2010, we didn’t get any. Last year we handled 11.

To date, how many bears have you rehabilitated? The two cubs we have now are number 151 and 152.

Briefly, what’s involved in getting an injured or black bear ready for release back into the wild? They’re initially brought to the critical care building where we’ll feed them and give them medical care and attention. Once they’re ready to be on their own, we take them to the ‘Halfway House,’”where we’ll bring them food and water in dishes — and that’s it. If they’re doing OK, we’ll then move them to the larger bear habitat building, which is completely enclosed, with food and water supplied in ways that there is no physical or sight contact with us. We also have cameras inside that we can monitor them. Once they reach a certain size and appear to be healthy and big enough to survive a winter on their own, we call a DEC big game wildlife biologist. The biologist tranquilizes the bear, weighs it and evaluates its health. If the biologist determines the animal is ready, it is transported back to the part of the state where it was initially found and released.

Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Len Soprano at the “Halfway House” where recovering bear cubs are put before going into one of two larger bear habitat buildings.

What do you feed them? At the start, when we’re bottle-feeding them, we use special baby formula made for bear cubs. Eventually, we start mixing in canned pumpkin and apple sauce. We’re careful to use food that doesn’t have preservatives, sugar or additives. Soon, we supplement the formula with a type of pudding made out of Gerber’s multi-grain baby cereal, adding bananas, apples, strawberries, blue berries and whole grain Cheerios. One thing should be noted, we never feed them anything with corn or honey. We don’t want to encourage them to afterward go after corn in a farmer’s field, or raid a bee hive for honey. In New York, it is legal for a beekeeper to shoot a bear if it’s raiding his or her hives.

Eighty percent of a bear’s diet in the wild is from vegetation. They’re also taught by their mothers to roll over logs to look for such things as salamanders and grubs. So we put plenty of logs in the bear habitat building and other things they can play with, including bowling balls, basketballs and even coconuts. By the time they’re in the bear habitat building, they’re completely off the formula and we start blind feeding them things like puppy chow, squashes and all kinds of fruits, berries and carrots. We also give them agricultural peanuts that are not roasted or salted and acorns.

Where does the money come from to support Kindred Kingdoms? We have grants, get donations and hold fund-raisers.

What’s your success rate of returning injured or sick black bears into the wild? Pretty good. We’ve only had to euthanize about a half dozen since we started doing this. The DEC requires us to get the cubs that they bring us back into the wild by Sept. 15 each year – provided they’re strong and healthy enough to prepare for, and survival the winter. Occasionally we’ll have to keep one through the winter and it gets released in the spring.

What do you like the most about working with bear cubs? “That first bear was kind of dumped on us,” Len said. “But once you start taking care of the little guys, it’s a riot. Once they’re in the final building, we can sit in our living room and watch them on our TV. They’ll do things like stand on their hind feet and bat each other around. They act just like little kids. We just enjoy that. The big thing, though, is we like to save them and get them back where they belong.”

Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

A bear cub at Kindred Kingdoms Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Pennellville, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Jean Soprano.

For more on Kindred Kingdoms, see its website. For a complete list of wildlife rehabilitators in New York and their specialties, see the DEC website.

To reduce bear/human conflicts, there’s good information on this topic on the DEC website.

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