Keeping "Li'l Smokey" Out Of Trouble

John Blackstone is a CBS News correspondent.
At the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care center the cub called Li'l Smokey is recovering from the second-degree burns he suffered on all four paws in a Northern California wildfire last month. Every couple of days the Wildlife Care staff remove protective booties from his paws, unwrap the bandages and change the dressing. His paws are healing well.

Li'l Smokey has had a lot of help from humans. He almost certainly would have died if he had not been found and captured by Adam Deem, a firefighter.

Still, the little bear doesn't much like people and that makes the people taking care of him quite happy. When bears and humans get too friendly it can often end badly … for the bear.

The last time I went to Lake Tahoe to cover a story about bears, it was all about animals that have become much too comfortable around people. There's a big problem in communities near Lake Tahoe with bears who discover that it's a lot easier to find food in garbage cans than it is to search for berries in the woods. Dumpsters outside fast food burger restaurants can be particularly attractive.

Bears have even been known to break into homes and head straight for the refrigerator. They particularly enjoy ice cream … and can make a big mess in a kitchen. It's dangerous of course for residents and the bears that get caught breaking and entering can end up being shot.

Bears that are lucky are captured and driven far up into the mountains to be released. When the cage is open people yell and scream at the bears, shoot rubber bullets at them and release specially trained dogs to chase the bears into the woods. The goal is to make the bears fear humans … and never want to see them again.

Which brings us back to L'il Smokey. Humans are giving him lots of tender loving care – but he doesn't know that. He doesn't see humans until veterinarian Dr. Kevin Willitts shows up in his enclosure with a syringe. The 16-pound cub screams and scratches until Willitts can grab him and give him a quick shot of the sedative. Then Li'l Smokey becomes as quiet and cuddly as a teddy bear. But he's sedated just long enough to get his bandages changed and get him back in his enclosure.

It's still not clear whether his injuries will heal enough that Li'l Smokey will be able to return to the wild. But those working so hard toward that end hope he will have no memory that humans were good to him. For a wild bear, staying well away from people is a good way to stay out of trouble.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.