Skyler Merchant didn’t have any plans for Easter Sunday. Then a call that morning took him on an amazing journey.
“A guy called my buddy’s dad who is a bear hunter to see if we could use a bucket truck to rescue three cubs out of a tree 50 or 60 feet up,” said Merchant, 24, an apprentice lineman at BARC Electric in Millboro, Virginia.
“For it being on Easter and everything else we’re dealing with now in this crazy time, it was very, very cool to get the call.”
The black bear cubs, only about three months old and between 5 and 6 pounds each, fled up the tree along busy Interstate 64 in Rockbridge County after a tractor-trailer truck struck and killed the mother bear Saturday night.
Merchant contacted his supervisor and got permission to use a two-man bucket truck. He met his best friend Travis Rhodenizer, a staking engineer who also had the day off, and the two headed to the site of the incident just outside Lexington.
Virginia State Police were there, along with a few hunters who had spotted the cubs in the tree. Their mother lay dead not far from its base.
“It was an unfortunate situation,” said Merchant, recalling how some folks in the area had seen the mama bear and her cubs in the days before the accident.
Merchant and Rhodenizer initially drove down the embankment to get as close as possible to the cubs that were clinging to a fork in the tree trunk. Wet weather, though, had turned the ground into heavy mud. The bucket truck got stuck and had to be towed to the highway.
Once back on the interstate shoulder, the two men found the truck’s boom stretched just far enough to reach the three orphans which, at that point, had been hanging on for roughly 12 hours.
It was then that Merchant leaned over from the bucket and, with gloves and a sure grip, plucked the squalling, fuzzy cubs one by one from the tree.
“I was being very cautious,” said Merchant. “I didn’t know what was going to happen when I put my hands on it. I figured grabbing the back of the neck like its mom would do might give me an advantage. I’m just glad it went smoothly, and we got to rescue them.”
Merchant and Rhodenizer placed the cubs in a hunter’s wildlife crate they had carried up in the bucket and, once back on the ground, handed it to a biologist who arrived from the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
“Bear cub rescues can be tricky since one of the first things that cubs learn is to climb trees to avoid danger,” said Amanda Nicholson, the center’s director of outreach. “Having a bucket truck was certainly a critical element to making the whole process a lot safer for all involved.
“It’s really heart-warming to know that so many people cared enough to come together, use their time and resources, and go the extra miles to get these cubs help. And on Easter Sunday no less!”
Merchant said he remains “so thankful” for the experience.
“I don’t think many people get a chance to put their hands on a cub much less rescue them out of a tree. This is something I will definitely cherish,” he said.
“I hunt bear. I deer hunt. Wildlife are amazing in their own way. After getting that close to three cubs, it was definitely life-changing to see how precious they are and how precious life is.”
The cubs can be viewed on a webcam at the center with several other orphaned cubs taken in this year.
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.