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Late last summer, while the New York Times and other high-falutin’ East Coast media outlets were working themselves into a frenzy analyzing every statement coming out of the battling presidential campaigns, the editorial board of the Idaho Statesman took a stand on an issue that had been polarizing its community: Boo Boo, or Bernard?
The handles under dispute belonged to a creature who, at the time, was too busy eating every apple he could get his mouth on to offer an opinion.
Found in August in the scorched area left by the Mustang complex fire—which burned for months in Idaho and consumed thousands of acres—the black bear cub was clinging to a tree when he was discovered, suffering from severe burns on all four paws and with no mother to be found. The state’s Fish and Game Department took custody and named him Boo Boo, after pic-a-nic basket-obsessed Yogi Bear’s young cohort.
Idaho has several first-class bear rehab groups, says veterinarian Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society. But officials felt their facilities weren’t as suited to the bear’s recovery as Idaho Humane’s shelter in Boise, which has a top-notch veterinary hospital and the ability to isolate the bear in a room by himself. Other veterinary hospitals could have taken him, but weren’t necessarily able to provide the isolation that makes for a better chance at rehabilitation, Rosenthal explains—the goal was to make sure the bear did not get used to being around humans and pets.
That goal was well-served by Idaho Humane’s facility. Few shelter staff ever saw the bear, who was kept in a room with three runs joined by guillotine doors. That was helpful, according to Rosenthal, because staff didn’t want the bear coming to associate food with people—“so we’d put his food in the far run and then later surreptitiously open the guillotine door. We put up barriers on the door so he can’t see us, and most of his contacts with me are not pleasant because he’s getting poked with a needle.”
While he had to be sedated regularly at first in order to have the bandages on his paws changed, the bear was very good about keeping the wraps on. As his recovery progressed, he regained his appetite, Rosenthal says, and the community came through when the shelter announced it could use some fruit to feed him. “We got bushels and bushels and bushels of apples and about three chest-freezers full of berries.”
The bear gained some needed weight during his stay at the shelter, but Rosenthal felt he was a big personality from the start—and that may have led to the naming trouble. “He never seemed like a Boo Boo to me. He’s very much a big bear in a little bear’s body,” Rosenthal says, recalling how Boo Boo would run at him and slam himself against the kennel doors to try to scare him away.
The shelter wanted to give the bear a more dignified name. “We had been talking with Fish and Game and said we thought ‘Boo Boo’ was kind of a dumb name for a bear,” says Rosenthal, “and so we just tried calling him Bernard. And we just got inundated by email. We got more email about that than any other aspect.”
The shelter eventually relented and changed the name back, leading to the Idaho Statesman’s opinion piece, “A bear by any other name … is just wrong.” “We dare you,” the board challenged readers. “Look at the face of Idaho’s most famous black bear cub, rescued from a wildfire near Salmon Aug. 26. Just try not to let out an ‘Awww.’ Now, we double dare you. Look into his eyes and see a Bernard. You couldn’t do it either, could you?” The paper went on to congratulate the shelter for allowing Boo Boo to stay Boo Boo, noting, “Sometimes the small injustices are most outrageous. And the small triumphs most sweet.”
The naming kerfuffle wasn’t the only source of comedy during the bear’s visit, during which the shelter fielded calls “from all over the country from questionable folks who felt certain the bear should come to them—bear psychics, people who walk with bears, all those sorts of things.” Happily, Rosenthal notes, the Fish and Game department is pretty careful to work with reputable places.
Many compared the cub to Smokey Bear, a black bear cub who suffered similar injuries during a wildfire in New Mexico in 1950 (and who, incidentally, also had a different name at first, Hotfoot Teddy). That bear was renamed Smokey after the U.S. Forest Service’s mascot, and while he recovered from his injuries, he lived out the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Rosenthal says he thinks the comparisons between Smokey and The Bear Formerly Known as Bernard are apt, but “we’ve never wanted him to have that fate of having to live in captivity.”
In September, the bear was transferred to Snowdon Wildlife Center in McCall, Idaho, where director Linda DeEulis has been calling him “Fire Bear.” He’s been playing with other cubs and climbing trees, she says, and is doing just fine. The end goal is to eventually release him back into the wild. Most likely he will then become an anonymous bear—as nature intended—but if he gets another name at that point, Animal Sheltering magazine will issue a strong statement.