BUBONITSY, Russia (AP) — Russian hunters have long been in the habit of rousting hibernating bears from their winter dens, shooting them for their pelts and meat, and leaving the cubs to starve or freeze to death. But Valentin Pazhetnov has a method of keeping the little ones alive and returning them to nature.
The secret, the Russian biologist says, is minimal contact with humans, so that the cubs learn to fend for themselves.
"Bear cubs shouldn't get used to the smell of humans, to human houses ... the human voice," he told AP Television. "They must avoid people, fear them. This is the only way they can survive in the wild."
The bears are brought in by volunteers, hunters or people who stumble upon them by chance, and are sheltered at the Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Program at Bubonitsy, a village 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Moscow. The program is funded by the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Here Pazhetnov; his wife, Svetlana; son Sergei, two grandchildren; and volunteers raise the cubs in a wooden den, where they live in darkness. The staff wear clothes impregnated with bear odor, deliver food to the animals quickly and refrain from fondling or communicating with them.
In spring, the cubs are moved to larger enclosures, and are released in the autumn.
Pazhetnov says some 200 cubs have been saved since 1996, and he welcomes a nationwide ban on hunting bears in dens that was enacted in March 2011.
He notes that aside from the cruelty involved, the bear is a Russian symbol, so "It was the right step and we are happy that the ban has been signed."