A young brown bear became a social media sensation in 2019 when he approached a snowboarder at a California ski resort, but the intrepid behavior also sparked a study among scientists.
The cub was analyzed by conservationists who determined that his canine behavior was due to a deadly disease that caused his brain to become dangerously inflamed.
The disease, known as encephalitis, has been documented since 2014, but has recently become a growing concern among young bears living in California.
Veterinarians said officials have caught four bears in the past 12 months with encephalitis, which can be caused by a body’s immune system attacking itself.
Most bears showed head tremors, lethargy, light weight, and a subtle head tilt, but officials say the virus poses no threat to humans.
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A young brown bear became a social media sensation in 2019 when he approached a snowboarder at a California ski resort, but the intrepid behavior also sparked a study among scientists
The bear roaming the slopes of the Northstar ski area was captured on film by a snowboarder, who showed the cub display a prominent tilt as it climbed snowboards and sniffed at skiers.
When officials took the bear into custody, they feared he would have to be deposed because he could pose a threat as he gets older.
However, the bear, now called Benji, was treated for the disease and now lives a healthy life on the Ramona Campus of the San Diego Humane Society.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife was the first to raise a red flag over bizarre behavior in 2014, warning California wildlife colleagues of growing encounters in the Tahoe Basin with young black bears with neurological abnormalities. Environmental news service reports.
Veterinarians and biologists from the two national wildlife organizations virtually met again in March to share updates on the situation.
Necropsy in the affected bears has confirmed encephalitis, but the cause of the disease remains a mystery.
What is Encephalitis?
Wildlife officials first reported encephalitis in 2014.
It is a disease that can occur in young bears because the immune system attacks itself.
Encephalitis has been found to inflame the brain dangerously
This results in bizarre behavior, especially fearlessness
Other symptoms include head tumors, lethargy, tilted head and malnutrition.
Four bears diagnosed with encephalitis have been caught in California in the past four months.
During their investigation into the cause, scientists have discovered five new viruses, previously unknown and unidentified, although their relationship to the condition and the neurological conditions remains unknown.
The most recent report was that of a tiny black bear wondering on a utility work site in Pollock Pines.
The 21-pound female cub was alone and possibly sick, appearing listless and showing little fear of humans.
Calls to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reported the bear had moved to a residential backyard in the heavily forested mountain area.
The residence rejected the CDFW guidelines for wildlife encounters and fed the apparently friendly bear apples and strawberries.
The bear was so comfortable that he jumped into a housekeeper’s open trunk, causing bystanders to approach and pet the furry animal.
The bear, who should have weighed nearly 80 pounds for its age, was under ticks when it was eventually caught and taken to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wildlife research lab.
One week of observation and testing confirmed neurological and behavioral disturbances and the bear was euthanized.
Researcher conducted a post-mortem examination and found he was suffering from encephalitis.
A fourth bear with signs of neurological abnormalities was seen in Humboldt County, but was euthanized and also found to have encephalitis.
The most recent report (pictured) was that of a tiny, black bear wondering on a job site in Pollock Pines. The 21-pound female cub was alone and possibly sick, appearing listless and showing little fear of humans.
Brandon Munk, a wildlife veterinarian from the CDFW, explained, “Any time a wild animal comes into our care, the best possible outcome is a release into the wild.
‘That’s just not possible for these neurologically disturbed bears. At this point, we don’t know what causes the encephalitis, so we don’t know what health risks these bears may pose to other animals.
The next best outcome would be a long, healthy life in a renowned zoo or wildlife sanctuary, but any inflammation of the brain will be significant to the individual bear and could have long-term consequences.
The few bears like this one we’ve placed don’t seem to be recovering fully, some require significant medical management for the bear’s life which is a huge burden on these facilities that often operate on tight budgets.
“So neither release into the wild nor placement in a facility is a good option for these bears,” he said.