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Valentin Pazhetnov, Russia's unconventional 'mama bear'

Russia's winter bear hunt has long left bear cubs orphaned and vulnerable, but one man has developed a way to raise cubs and safely release them into the wild as adults. 

By Correspondent / April 20, 2012

Valentin Pazhetnov ("Uncle Valya"), second from right, with his wife Svetlana, far right, and members of their extended family, at home in Bubonitsy, Russia on April 6.

Fred Weir

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Bubonitsy, Russia

For centuries, Russia's winter bear hunt has been one of the world's great hunting experiences, beloved by czars, Communist Party general secretaries, and, lately, Russian oligarchs and rich foreign trophy seekers.

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Until recently, few paid any attention to the tragic collateral damage that results when mother bears are awakened from hibernation, driven from their lairs, and slain for their rich winter pelts. Bear cubs, typically born in early winter, are left alone to starve or be savaged by dogs.

But thanks largely to the work of one man, Siberian-hunter-turned-animal-conservationist Valentin Pazhetnov, almost 200 orphaned bear cubs have been saved in the past 15 years, raised by his special method which minimizes human contact so that they can be safely returned to the wild as young adults.

Mr. Pazhetnov's work attracted major support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and inspired a similar project with grizzly bears in Canada. A year ago, the wave of publicity for the project shamed the Russian government into banning the winter "den hunt" for good.

The project is based in Bubonitsy, a tiny village of just a few families deep in the forests of Russia's Tver region (see map), where brown bear cubs are brought from all over Russia after being found, by locals, forest rangers or, occasionally, handed over by guilt-ridden hunters. Though numbers are down this year thanks to the ban, poaching and accidents ensure a steady stream of orphaned cubs into the facility.

"I was a hunter for the first part of my life, I could go off into the woods and survive for weeks," says Pazhetnov, a grizzled old patriarch whose huge three-generational extended family surrounds him in Bubonitsy and comprises most of the workers in the station. "But I came to love nature very much. And bears. They are a very special animal. They're smart, not like apes or dolphins mind you, but I've seen bears successfully match wits with hunters. They're worthy of our care."

Not about becoming 'friends'

Pazhetnov and his children constructed most of the site's several buildings themselves. He also writes children's stories – about bears, of course – and does most of the family's cooking.

"My husband is a man of many talents. He's a carpenter, a welder, a metalworker, and a mechanic. His borscht is the best around here," says Svetlana Pazhetnova.

The facility currently houses eight bear cubs, all under three months, who are kept in special indoor compartments and regularly fed a special vitaminized porridge – the youngest are bottle-fed – by workers who are heavily clothed and gloved to prevent the bears from catching human scent, hearing peoples' voices, or bonding with them in any way.

Later, as spring spreads over this still-snowbound northern forest, they'll be moved to outdoor enclosures where they will be allowed limited roaming space and fed through barriers, with segregation from humans even more strictly enforced. In summer they may be increasingly turned loose to forage and explore the local woods. Eventually, each individual bear will be returned to the exact locale it came from.

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