Holly, The Super Mom, and Her Cubs
Bear 435, joyfully known as “Holly”, runs the Brooks River with her two cubs. Bear cub 503 on the left was adopted by Holly when he was abandoned by his natural mother. Holly’s natural cub, “Bio”, runs behind Holly on the right.
Holly, The Super Mom, and Her Cubs
Holly, officially referred to as Bear 435 by the National Park Service, is a hero at Katmai. She adopted an abandoned cub, Bear 503, and raised it alongside her natural cub. I would often see Holly and her cubs running fast through the Brooks River. They never seemed to stop running, except when they were eating salmon.
By mid-July, the sockeye salmon had been swimming up the Brooks River for about 3 weeks to spawn in the upper reaches of the Brooks Lake watershed in Katmai National Park. I had been exploring and photographing the park for a few weeks at this point and was able to see the evolution of the bears’ behavior in their pursuit of these salmon.Read More
When the salmon first start to swim up Naknek River and wind their way across the massive Naknek Lake into Brooks River they are strong and swim fast. This is my favorite time to photograph the Brown Bears who come from long distances to feast on this sockeye salmon run. At this time the fish are hard to catch and the bears are starving after their long hibernation and eating grass in the early spring. These huge bears are explosive as they run after and pounce on salmon. It amazes me how they can catch fish this way — the physics of it all baffles still today.
My goal for this day, July 17, 2015, was to photograph bear families, moms with cubs, who fish the lower Brooks River away from the famous Brooks Falls where males tend to congregate. I waded in the lower river for a couple of hours photographing different individual bears and a few bear families walking the shoreline or resting in the forest.
Even though my long telephoto lens allows me to keep a long distance from the bears, I have to keep moving in relation to all the bears in the river. They show up quietly from the tall grass on the shore when you least expect it. During close encounters, the bears have been very “polite” and are really just interest in the salmon.
Bear 435, Holly, and her two cubs are not so quiet though. I could hear them all morning long-running and splashing in the river, even though they were out of sight a few bends in the river away from me. Their behavior became so predictable that when I heard the loud splashing I got to the other side of the river and waited as they chased salmon up the river.
This plan worked out well! Before I knew it there were Holly and her two cubs sprinting through the water from one pod of salmon to the next. As they went by I was kneeling in the shallow water with my lens just a few inches above the water. This allowed me to capture their frolicking in the water.
These bears move fast! When they run by it looks as if they do not even see me. In looking at the photos of them chasing the salmon upstream I can see in some of the images that they sometimes do take a quick look in my direction. They are aware of everything around them, especially the mothers with cubs.
My experience photographing bears in rivers is that it is much safer and less disturbing to the bears when I am in the water, versus on the shoreline. On the shore, the tall grass and brush hide me from the bears. Surprising a bear, especially a mother with cubs, is dangerous and disturbs the bears. When they can see me from far away, then they are not surprised and they will move in a way that they feel safe.
I also pay close attention to where I am relative to the schools of salmon. If I can situate myself in the shallow water so I am visible from afar, and away from any salmon, then the bears can fish in a relaxed and uninhibited manner.
What I like best about this photo is how it shows the teamwork of Holly and her cubs as they do their signature run-and-fish routine.
Holly, Bear 435, is an iconic bear of the Brooks River with a light blonde coat and large blond ears and dark eye rings. Holly is known to have had four litters in the time between 2001 and 2018. Holly lost her sole spring cub in 2009 when it was killed by another bear (Bear 814).
One thing that makes Holly unique is that she adopted an abandoned cub in 2014.Read More
In 2014, Holly returned to the Brooks River with one spring cub. Later that season Holly adopted a yearling cub (Bear 503) that had been abandoned by its mother (Bear 402). Holly ended up hibernating with both her natural cub and the adopted cub and then returning in 2015 with both cubs.
Adoption of cubs by bears is very rare. A mother bear has a hard enough time feeding and protecting her own cubs. Adopting another cub increases the caloric resources she needs to acquire and adds to her never-ending responsibility in protecting them from other bears and predators. Why would Holly choose to adopt the abandoned cub?
Personally, I believe that wildlife biologists have a lot to learn about emotion and behavior in animals. This area of research is growing rapidly and we are learning that animals are much smarter, and show emotions of some type, more than originally thought. As a scientist myself, I am disturbed when I hear the rather simplistic avoidance phrase, “do not anthropomorphize animal behaviors”. Well, I wonder, do these naysayers own a dog or cat?
If you are interested in scientific research in this area I recommend:
- Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina
- Are We Smart Enough to Know What Animals Think and Feel, by Fras de Waal
- Inside Animal Hearts and Minds: Bears That Count, Goats That Surf, and Other True Stories of Animal Intelligence and Emotion, by Belinda Recio
When I witnessed a large male bear (Bear 856) kill one of Bear 132’s spring cubs on July 3, 2018, an interesting observation was made. The surviving spring cub climbed a tree during the attack and remained up there for hours while its mother, Bear 132 potentially injured after also being attacked by 856, disappeared.
Hours after the attack Holly came by with her yearling cubs and the spring cub climbed down from the tree and ran over to Holly. Did this cub know Holly’s reputation for adopting abandoned cubs? I refer to Occam’s Razor here, the simplest explanation I can come up with is, most likely yes! The treed cub chose Holly and none of the mothers with cubs in the area. It could have joined in with other families but chose Holly for some reason. Hmmm?
Holly returned to the Brooks River in July 2017 with two spring cubs. Holly would often tree these cubs near the Brooks Camp Visitor Center, in response to the presence of other bears. At Brooks Camp, and other places, I have observed mother bears intentionally leaving their cubs by humans, as a deterrent to other bears, who avoid humans.
Holly’s cubs were spotted in early 2018 as yearlings.
The cub Holly adopted, Bear 503, was doing very well in August 2018 and fishing at the falls among the aggressive large males there.
Limited Edition Prints
Holly, The Super Mom, and Her Cubs
(16 x 24 inch size shown)
“Holly, The Super Mom, and Her Cubs” (c) Ed MacKerrow / In Light of Nature. ( 5472:3648, 3:2, 20150717_700A3166.psd )