Smokey Junior to be prepped for release back into wild

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — Efforts to reunite a mother bear and her cub who were separated during a Lake County brush fire last week appeared to come to an end on Tuesday.

The cub, named Smokey Junior, was taken to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, officials at the zoo said.

Biologists and Florida Fish and Wildlife officers worked for nearly a week to try to reunite the cub with its mother, walking it through the woods and putting it in a crate in hopes the mother would pick up his scent. They also used recording sounds of a bear cub, hoping to draw the attention of Smokey Junior’s mother.

As it became less likely that the mother would appear, the decision was made to send the cub to Tampa.

“They’ve done their due diligence. They’ve done everything they could to try to reunite it with its mother,” said David Tetzlaff, the director of the Central Florida Zoo.

FWC said that once the cub is a little bigger, it will likely be transferred from Lowry Park Zoo to another facility that can rehabilitate it for release into the wild.

Smokey Junior will be monitored by veterinarians at the zoo, but with little human contact so he doesn’t get used to people.

“That animal, you want him to be apprehensive of people,” said Tetzlaff.

Zoo officials said the cub is alert and has a good appetite.

They said the cub will have little human interaction with people to prep him to live in the woods again.

“What they’ll do with an animal that’s a good candidate for release is feeding it food it would eat in the wild,” said Tetzlaff.

Last week, as Florida Forest Service and Lake County Fire Rescue worked to put out a brush fire, the cub, whom they dubbed Smokey Junior, was found stranded and burned.

Since Thursday’s fire, FWC has been searching for the cub’s mother.

A veterinarian determined that the cub was well enough to return to the wild, and its best chance of survival was to be reunited with its mother. The cub is likely about 9 weeks old, officials said.

Smokey Junior weighs 6 pounds, and once he gets to between 10 and 15 pounds, he will be moved to another facility where he will be prepared for release back into the wild.

An adult bear was seen Friday morning near the vicinity of where the cub was found, but the cub was still being treated.

The likelihood of the adult female bear returning is doubtful, FWC said, and staff were uncertain that the bear seen Friday is the female whom they were seeking.

Efforts to find the mother bear continued throughout the weekend and Monday.

FWC said rehabilitating young cubs is a challenge because they can easily become accustomed to humans, in which case they cannot be released into the wild, FWC said.

FWC hopes Smokey Junior will be released back into the wild toward the end of the year.

Tetzlaff believes it will likely be November or later when the bear is released, since more food will be available and hunting season will be winding down.

“A 30-to-40 pound bear cub, from a distance, might look like a wild hog. And they don’t want the animal to be shot,” said Tetzlaff.