By Bill Piecuch
On April 6, the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV) admitted a very unusual patient — a four-month-old female Syrian brown bear cub confiscated from a wildlife hoarder in Maryland.
By mid-May while at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, weakened and underweight, the bear cub began to regain her health while carefully and lovingly nurtured by staff that bottle fed her four times a day. Because she was — at this point — raised by humans, rehabilitation and release were not an option. She required the right living environment that would literally keep her alive and allow her the next best option to being released into the wild. This is when the WCV began looking for a new home and decided that the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary (IEAS) in Boyd, TX, was best suited for her as it is the top accredited sanctuary for exotic animals in the country.
That’s when Dr. Larry Patterson of Eye Centers of Tennessee and his wife, Jessica, were contacted by WCV President Ed Clark. Clark asked if the Pattersons could use their private aircraft to transport the bear cub from Virginia to her future home at IEAS.
Without hesitation the couple agreed and began planning the flight, which included an air trip from Crossville to Virginia to pick up the bear cub, gas up the aircraft in Memphis and then proceed on to Texas. In all it would be 11 hours of flying in their small plane.
“We had to make a quick decision as they desperately needed to move her," Patterson said. "Once we made it, there was no turning back.”
The couple are not strangers to responding to human suffering and care or benevolence to animals. Google records show consistently high marks by Patterson’s patients, and he has served the Crossville community for 25 years. His wife, Jessica, served as the Georgia senior state director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and dedicated herself to animal welfare issues in the Georgia legislature.
Late Friday, May 24, with Patterson piloting and his wife accompanying, the aircraft went airborne and headed to Virginia to meet Clark and prepare for the transport on Saturday. Early the next morning, the WCV staff loaded the bear on the plane and the Pattersons, along with their precious cargo, were Texas bound. Interestingly, the flight beginning in Virginia and ending in Texas was observed by thousands viewing flight progress via an Internet service called Flight Aware. Many loved the little bear and found joy seeing her travel to her new home.
Patterson laughingly remembers that at the fuel stop in Memphis the small airport had "bear claw" pastries out for guests.
“Jessica and I had a great laugh at the unlikely and timely coincidence,” he said.
By late afternoon Saturday, the bear cub arrived safely in Texas and was transported to her new home at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary. It was here that this tiny cub was officially named Misha.
During the first three weeks at her new home, Misha became accustomed to her new life at the sanctuary and was thriving in her new habitat. According to the IEAS team in Texas, Misha embraced every new opportunity and was eager and curious to learn and explore. She began to form unique bonds with the nurturing staff members as her confidence grew each day.
After violent thunderstorms on the evening of June 9, Misha was found lifeless in her habitat the next day as caregivers arrived for her morning feeding. Her loss was shocking and tragic to all involved in the little bear's plight. After a necropsy was performed, Misha's official cause of death was drowning. It was devastating to everyone involved in her plight.
“She was a treasure,” a staff member at IEAS said. “To say that we feel it is a privilege to have known Misha, even for a short time, is an understatement. It is one of the greatest honors we’ve had, and a time that will undoubtedly stay with each of us forever.”
While Misha's story forgoes the happy ending everyone wanted, the Pattersons hope her story will shed light on a growing issue in this country — the private ownership of exotic animals.
"Private ownership of these majestic creatures never ends well for the animals," Jessica said. "Even though Misha was given a second chance at life at a remarkable sanctuary, she was still not where she truly belonged as a bear — in the wild."