A young black bear displaying neurological abnormalities, including a prominent head tilt, undergoes a CT scan at UC Davis in 2019. The bear became something of a social media sensation for approaching people at the Northstar ski resort before being treated by CDFW and placed with a wildife facility in San Diego, where the bear has required ongoing veterinary care. CDFW photo by Kirsten Macintyre
In 2019, a young bear at Northstar California was found fearlessly approaching visitors, acting very “dog-like” and even stepped on the snowboard and curiously sniffed the snowboarder who was filming it on social media.
The bear, who had a prominent head tilt, was very friendly towards people and after being picked up by California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was sent in for CT scans and treated for neurological abnormalities.
The bear’s name, Benji, now resides at the San Diego Humane Society’s Ramona Campus, but other bears around the state have been found with similar abnormalities.
When these bears are found they usually are too young to be on their own, have a pronounced head tilt, tremors, exude “dog-like” personalities, are overly friendly, malnourished and seem not physically or mentally right.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife first encountered this phenomenon in 2014 and alerted wildlife colleagues.
“What brought this current condition to light is a pattern,” said Jamie Sherman, a veterinarian at UC Davis’ One Health Institute who has studied black bear diseases.
This pattern is prompting the next steps of research and she says that encephalitis is causing the neurological abnormalities, but the root cause is still unknown.
“The more we investigate, the more confounding it becomes,” said CDFW public information officer Peter Tira. “This presents multiple challenges, we are very concerned.”
Tira said that findings have not been confined to a specific geographic region either.
During early research five new unidentified viruses were found, but scientists don’t know what or if there is a relationship to them and this condition.
California has dealt with several bears exuding similar abnormalities which have turned out to be encephalitis. Encephalitis can only be accurately determined with a necropsy after the bear has been euthanized, but bears with encephalitis are unable to live in the wild without veterinarian assistance.
“They have this vacant, glazed overlook,” she said.
Bryant has hands-on worked with five of these bears with this condition.
“My concern is bears are going to be killed,” she said.
This time of year, yearlings are coming out of hibernation. These yearlings are also very friendly and approach people as they cope with separating from their mothers.
“That behavior is normal for yearlings and dispersing juveniles,” she said.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is aware of the disease, but has not treated any at their facility.
Denise Upton, Animal Care Director at LTWC says that the general public might not know what to look for because habitualized bears and bears that have been hit by cars can also have similar symptoms.