STROUDSBURG -- Eric Uhler's routine for the last six months came to an abrupt halt on Friday.
Since March, Uhler, who operates the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center with his wife, Kathy, has cared for two orphaned black bear cubs -- cleaning their pen, monitoring their health and feeding them twice a day.
He knew the goal was to raise the cubs so they would eventually be returned to the wild.
Still, when that day came on Friday morning, Uhler admits it was a bittersweet feeling.
"It's difficult. You don't want to get attached to these animals, but when they come in here as cubs they want contact," Uhler said. "Once they are old enough to move into the big pen, I distance myself as much as possible. Our goal is to get every animal as wild as we can and release it. These aren't pets."
The Pennsylvania Game Commission picked up the cubs and transported them to State Game Lands 13 in Sullivan County – a nearly 50,000 acre expanse that will give the bears plenty of room to roam.
The cubs – a male and a female, were brought to the center in March and were each just over a month old. The male was found in Luzerne County near Mountain Top after a homeowner called the Game Commission to report it in a tree in his yard. Wildlife Conservation Officer Cory Bentzoni, who covers part of Monroe County, said the mother never returned for the cub for several days.
"We don't know what happened to the mother. It may have been hit on the road," he said. "The cub weighed under five pounds, which is less than half the weight it should've been."
Not long after Bentzoni brought the cub to the Uhler's, another one arrived from Lycoming County after its mother was hit by a car.
PGC biologist Kevin Wenner said the agency's prefers to place orphaned cubs in a den with another female. That wasn't possible this time, he said, because an early warm spell brought many bears out of their dens ahead of schedule.
"This is actually a last resort because we prefer to keep them with another female bear," Wenner said. "But with these two cubs, it was too late in the spring and we just couldn't find any females in their dens."
If the Uher's hadn't been equipped to care for bears, the cubs would've perished, Bentzoni said.
"Kathy is one of the few rehabbers in the state that we trust to handle a bear," he said.
The center has successfully raised and released 10 bears over the last several years. Kathy Uher said it's easier when cubs are brought in as pairs because they tend to grow up wild in the large pen that is isolated from the rest of the facility.
The center raises a variety of orphaned or injured animals – foxes, raccoons, bald eagles – with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. Kathy Uhler, who has been a wildlife rehabilitator for 31 years, said working with bears is a bit different.
"You have to keep your eyes open and be careful," she said. "We want them to be wild so they're not tame. Bears are smart animals and it's a privilege to work with them."
After they were brought to the center in March, the Uher's fed the cubs a formula specific for black bears. They went through six five-gallon buckets, which each cost $225.
Once the cubs were big enough to move into the larger pen, Eric Uher fed them trout from a nearby hatchery, fresh produce and wild grapes.
When it came time to go back to the wild, the male that once weighed less than five pounds was now a healthy 75 pounds. The female weighed in at 81 pounds.
"They are a very healthy weight. They've been fed well," Wenner said.
Before the cubs could be moved, Wenner and Sullivan County WCO Rick Finnegan entered the pen and tranquilized each one with a sedative. They were then carried outside and placed in the shade where Wenner gave them a quick health inspection, cleaned their ears and tattooed an identification number inside their upper lip.
Wenner didn't administer a reversal drug in order to allow the cubs to remain sedated for part of the hour-long trip to Sullivan County. SGL 13 provides everything necessary for the cubs to survive, according to PGC information and education supervisor Bill Williams. The vast forest contains a multitude of black cherry trees – an essential food source – along with plenty of swamps, streams and other bears. The site is remote and far from people, reducing the risk that the cubs will get into trouble.
"They will be released together and because they're immature and won't breed this year, territorial issues with other bears shouldn't be a problem," Williams said.
After the cubs left the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center on Friday, Kathy and Eric Uher prepared for another farewell. That afternoon they released a juvenile bald eagle that was brought to the center six weeks ago by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "When it was brought in, it had a bruised wing and a severe lung infection," Kathy Uher said. "We took it to an animal hospital in Bethlehem for x-rays, wrapped the wing and put it on antibiotics for the lung infection."
After a few weeks of physical therapy in the flight pen to get the wing back in shape, the eagle was ready to be released. Kathy Uher said it will be returned to where it was found in Monroe County, and the family unit – which is still in the area -- should accept it.
The Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center is licensed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The facility cares for injured and orphaned wild animals until they can be released. Donations are accepted to cover the cost of feed and supplies. For more information, call 402-0223 or visit www.poconowildlife.com.