Hissy wasn’t exactly menacing, as far as black bears go. The gaunt, housecat-size animal appeared to be out on its own when it circled around a hot tub last October, encountered McBride — and hissed. The name came naturally to the then 10-year-old, who went on to spot the orphaned black bear cub more than once last fall.
Last Thursday afternoon McBride and Hissy were face-to-face again, this time in a more suitable spot for a black bear. They encountered each other at Jackass Meadows, well into the backcountry west of the northern Teton Range. It was just before Hissy was let loose to go live his black bear life.
“Hello there,” McBride told the bear. “Hello.”
Hissy, now a healthy 110-pound yearling bruin, had an odyssey of eight months.
Sometime after losing mom from an unknown cause, the cub wound up getting by in the neighborhoods south of Jackson.
“He was scraping by,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore biologist Becca Lyon said while en route to the release site. “He wasn’t really putting on any weight, and he seemed to be sleeping under somebody’s deck.”
When Lyon caught up to the little fella late last October, he was up in an ornamental tree eating “little cherry-like things” that budded on the branches. She’d been getting calls for weeks of a solo black bear cub in the neighborhoods southwest of town, which told her the animal had likely been orphaned for a while.
The tail end of immobilizing and catching the young bear proved a social media sensation.
Heide McBride captured a clip of the cub free-falling from the tree after it had been hit with a tranquilizer dart. As the drug took effect the cub clung to consciousness — and then literally to a tree branch, from which it slung from like a sloth before plopping harmlessly into an awaiting tarp.
“Aw, poor baby,” McBride muttered as the scene unfolded.
Someone out of the frame chimed in, remarking, “Oh, that’s a happy story.”
The declaration rang true, and not just because the video would go on to garner many thousands of views on Facebook and YouTube and an astounding 4-million-plus watches on TikTok, according to McBride.
Ordinarily, the Game and Fish carnivore crew would relocate a black bear that was in a bad spot but was not actually causing conflict, as was the case with Hissy. But with a Wyoming winter looming near, a relocation would have been a death sentence for a naïve, first-year cub that biologists guessed weighed just 15 pounds.
“As far as survival goes,” Lyon said, “he wouldn’t have survived through the year.”
Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief, Dan Thompson, made the call to use a center that could take the cub in for rehabilitation after conferring with his staff. There have only been “a few” such occasions of the agency going the rehabilitation route, he said, and never in recent history in the agency’s Jackson Region.
“This was a unique situation,” Thompson said. “Our options were either putting the animal down or trying to find placement for it.”
The state found a taker in the Idaho Black Bear Rehab facility in Garden City, where Hissy became Wyatt and was raised under the care of president Amy Kidwell. He grew up into a spunky adult-sized bear, living with several of his Ursus americanus comrades in a 5,000-square-foot enclosure.
“These Wyoming bears, they’re just full of personality,” Kidwell said at the release site.
Wyatt was a “fan favorite,” she said.
Heide McBride was among those who watched the little cub sprout into an adult black bear from afar, courtesy of Kidwell’s daily updates to the Idaho Black Bear Rehab’s Facebook page. This week she assured the Wyatt fan club that the animal they’ve been following for months was in welcome quarters in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
“I can testify firsthand that Wyatt’s new home is bear paradise!!” McBride posted, among two dozen other comments about Wyatt’s goodbye. “Wildflowers, streams, lily pad ponds, plenty of food and most importantly, very far back in the woods away from humans!! I’m sure he’s settling nicely into his new digs!”
At the Jackass Meadows release site, Kidwell and photographers discussed how to best position the rehab center’s vehicle to make for the best photo opp. Mosquitos swarmed on a sunny afternoon as Kidwell readied to swing the gate on Wyatt’s cage and say goodbye to the bear she had watched hibernate and double in size three times over. In his final moments of confinement, she offered him a swig of water.
“Last chance,” Kidwell said. “You better go find your own.”
Hitting the ground, the rehabilitated yearling ran a big arc, circling the vehicle and complicating the photo opp. They always go in a straight line, Kidwell said.
“I’m just shocked,” she said. “Smart guy — he always was outsmarting me.”
Hissy, or Wyatt, was now bear 1918, at least going by the number on his ear tag. He was also a wild black bear for the first time since he was a little squirt. The new addition to the Caribou-Targhee’s black bear population looked like he had a sensory overload in his new environment, snapping at a twig, vigorously smelling and standing on two feet before scurrying into the timber out of sight.
Readying him for release into the wild was the “whole goal,” Kidwell said.
Kidwell was the only one who ever entered the enclosure, she said, in order to dissuade habituation.
From the looks of it, he’d retained some of his bear sensibilities: moments earlier, a reporter’s iPhone held too near his cage was greeted with a lunge and jaw pops, which proved a startling warning.
At a year and a half old, the bruin was the same age he would have been if his mother naturally cast him off, Thompson said. The large carnivore manager was optimistic for a happy end to the story.
“Hopefully,” he said, “we never hear from this bear again.”