Three 4-month-old Kodiak brown bear cubs were dehydrated, starving, cold, wet, exhausted and unprotected when a well-known hunting guide rescued them and put them up in his own cabin.
Without his help, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Nate Svoboda said, the bears "probably wouldn't have lasted another day."
On May 1, the cubs' mother was killed by an unguided hunter, Fish and Game said. Alaska Wildlife Troopers are investigating the sow's death. Although brown bear hunting in Kodiak is open through mid-May, it is never legal to kill a sow with cubs.
At 4 months old, brown bear cubs are almost entirely dependent on the sow for food and protection. Only about half make it to adulthood, Fish and Game supervisor Larry Van Daele said.
With the sow dead, the cubs had almost no chance of survival in the wild. But luckily, Mike Munsey had been watching them with a spotting scope.
"The story began late on Monday, May 5, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game received a report via satellite phone from hunting guide Mike Munsey that a brown bear sow with three cubs had been shot by an unguided hunter from another, unaffiliated camp on the west side of Kodiak Island," Fish and Game said in a release.
Munsey and his team were quickly authorized to rescue the cubs. Without the department's permission, it would have been a crime to touch the animals.
Munsey couldn't be reached for comment, but Fish and Game said he brought the cubs back to a guide cabin, where they stayed overnight until biologists could reach them the following day.
When Svoboda arrived at the cabin, the cubs were hiding under a bed.
"They'd had a pretty traumatic few days," Svoboda said. "Munsey let them kind of roam the guide cabin. But when I got there they were tucked away, sort of crouched in a corner. I had to get on my belly and shimmy under the bed to grab them."
"The bears were just whooped," Svoboda said. "They were incredibly exhausted. They went four or five days without any warmth or nutrition. They were in pretty rough shape."
Two of the cubs were 12 pounds and one was 10 pounds when they were weighed and examined by biologists. All three of the cubs were "slightly underweight," according to Van Daele.
The cubs arrived Thursday at the Alaska Zoo, where they are being fed and cared for.
Two of the cubs are expected to go to a newly remodeled exhibit at the Wildwood Park and Zoo in Marshfield, Wisconsin, toward the end of the summer. Fish and Game is still in the permitting process for a second facility for the third cub. Wildwood Park and Zoo did not have room to take all three bears.
"This is amazing," Svoboda said. "This was a chance to turn something tragic into something positive. It's a huge responsibility for the zoos or facilities, though. We want to make sure they're willing to commit to long-term care, because these guys could live for the next 25 to 30 years."