The metal door opened on the trailer. People shouted. The bear bolted.
With two trained Karelian bear dogs in pursuit, “Black Pearl” hightailed it into the woods.
Five months to the day since she’d been found with pelvic fractures off the side of a highway, and after a long recovery, this adult female American black bear was back in the wild.
“We’re going to push it out and let it go,” state Fish & Wildlife Officer Nicholas Jorg explained to a dozen or so onlookers before the release on Tuesday. “Once we call the dogs off and all the noise, then the bear will have a big sense of relief and feel safe once it’s a safe, acceptable distance away from a group of people.”
Jorg also told people to yell, “Get out, bear,” to make sure she got the message.
The bystanders stood in pickup beds. The bear was inside a culvert trap — a big, corrugated drain pipe on a trailer bed — that Jorg had towed behind his department pickup that morning to a meadow in the Cascade Range. The journey started at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, where the bear had been recuperating from surgery, under expert care.
So she wouldn’t think too kindly of her human benefactors, another state Fish & Wildlife officer, Jesse Ward, shot a non-lethal bean-bag round at her hind quarters. Ward quickly fired off two cracker shells that sounded like July 4 fireworks.
It was over in about 20 seconds. Black Pearl was in her new home.
The release had been a long time in the making.
Fish & Wildlife officers received the initial report about the bear on Dec. 2, suggesting she dragged herself off a road after being struck by a car. She was on the Kitsap Peninsula, near Poulsbo, but they were unable to locate her at first. A few days later, they returned with dogs to track her.
Because she was captured Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, they nicknamed her Pearl. As a black bear, her name evolved to Black Pearl, a fictional ship in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
Aside from the fractures, the bear appeared to be in excellent health. Officers called PAWS — the Progressive Animal Welfare Society — which runs a hospital for sick and injured wildlife across the parking lot from the companion animal shelter that’s familiar to much of the public.
X-rays showed multiple rib and pelvic fractures. To heal their patient, who weighed at least 300 pounds, PAWS staff knew they would need to bring in other veterinary specialists and get access to a larger operating room. They also wanted to make sure the bear’s birth canal wasn’t damaged, so that someday she might become pregnant without putting her life in danger.
Dr. John Huckabee, the veterinary program manager at PAWS, enlisted help from the Woodland Park Zoo and the Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle. On Dec. 13, their team immobilized the bear for transport in the zoo’s ambulance.
At Woodland Park’s operating room, three veterinarians and six veterinary technicians from the different groups got to work. They put pelvic fragments into alignment with metal plates and screws, like an orthopedic surgeon would use on a human. Afterward, they drove their ursine patient back to PAWS to recover on a straw bed inside a secure enclosure.
Over the coming months, they tried to avoid any human interaction — even with staff. As with the release, they wanted to preserve her instinctual suspicion of people. They used video monitors to track her progress.
By New Year’s Day, the bear was eating and walking between naps. She dined on dog food, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and other proteins that staff hid in her enclosure. By early March, the bear’s use of her legs appeared nearly normal, staff said at the time.
“We’ve known for a while that she would be OK to be released,” said Jeff Brown, a PAWS wildlife naturalist who witnessed her release. “We just wanted to make sure the conditions were right.”
That meant waiting for spring when there would be plenty of food in the growing forests. Also, they wanted to ensure she had fully awakened from her winter slumber.
“She was still in a state of hibernation until at least a month ago,” Brown said.
PAWS has taken in at least 125 bears since 1986. Most are cubs, not adults. Black Pearl’s case also was unusual because of her severe injuries.
Present at Tuesday’s release were the two wildlife officers and a pair of Karelian bear dogs named Colter and Freya. There were staff from PAWS, two vet techs from Woodland Park Zoo who had worked on the bear, and three journalists.
The Hansen family came along as well: parents Chad and Jennifer, with their children, Ole, 4, and Aksel, 2.
The Seattle family won an auction a few years ago — the prize was to witness Department of Fish & Wildlife officers release a bear.
At the time, they had talked to Jorg, a canine handler, at length about the Karelian bear dogs. The couple especially admired the Karelians because they own a Norwegian elkhound, another hearty and fluffy breed of working dog from the far north.
Work and family conflicts forced them to pass up an opportunity to see a bear released about two years ago.
When Jorg followed up recently, the Hansens made sure Chad had the day off from his job in property management.
“We’re just here as really lucky guests,” Jennifer Hansen said Tuesday afternoon, as Black Pearl presumably lumbered through the woods nearby. “I feel like we got to see a very happy ending for this bear. Now, she hopefully gets to live a very long and normal, healthy life.”
Help a bear
It costs PAWS an average of $4,000 to care for an adult American black bear, or $3,500 for a cub, from intake through release. Donations to the nonprofit wildlife center are accepted at paws.org.