The cold wind and soaking rain pummeled the hiker as he stood over the lifeless bear cub. It was clearly dying. What’s more, its potentially wrathful mother could return at any moment. But as a daddy himself, the walker realized the cub was just a baby that needed help. So his mind was made up.
The hiker was Corey Hancock, a resident of Salem, Massachusetts. The 41-year-old father is both a keen walker and photographer; the latter passion helped him document his animal adventure, while it was the former hobby that led him to it.
And Corey’s fateful discovery was made in March 2017, when he was rambling through Oregon’s Santiam River Trail. The threat of rain did little to deter his travels, either. In fact, that was part of the reason he left for the great outdoors in the first place.
“I [was] aiming to check out a waterfall I’d visited a couple times in the past,” Hancock wrote in a Facebook post made in March 2016. “I wanted to see what it looked like swollen from all the recent rains. But more than that, I just needed to… breathe some fresh air.”
While equipped with waterproof clothing and his trusty camera, Hancock hoped to beat the worst of the rain. However, he simply wasn’t prepared for the torrential downpour that followed. And fearing that his camera might get damaged, the photographer decided instead to just head back.
So Hancock retraced his steps to a meadow he had passed on the way. But although he was familiar with the area, there was something in his field of vision that he hadn’t noticed before. Namely, there was a small, dark shape lying where flowers usually bloom.
When Hancock got closer, moreover, he saw that the animal was a bear cub. “He wasn’t two feet off the trail, laying there on his back. [He seemed] by all appearances to be dead,” the hiker wrote. “His lips were blue. His eyes were open but unmoving and hazy.”
Hancock realized with mounting terror that the bear cub probably wasn’t the only one whose life was in danger. Indeed, if the bear’s mother was close by, he was in a truly perilous situation himself. And as the rain was intense, he feared that he didn’t have long to decide what to do about the cub.
“Assuming that I might be attacked at any moment, I took a quick photograph and retreated a short distance,” Hancock recalled. “I watched the cub and scanned the area. With the rain pouring down on his almost-lifeless body… I knew he wouldn’t survive much longer under [those] conditions.”
After what must have seemed like an eternity, Hancock made a bold move to save the tiny bear’s life. He carried the furry bundle to his vehicle and started driving. And once a signal appeared on his cell, Hancock hit social media for advice on where to take the cub.
“It needed professional help,” Hancock recalled. “In fact, there on the side of the road, the cub stopped breathing altogether. I performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and on my third blow I could see the cub’s chest expand.” Following the Facebook community’s advice, Hancock took the bear to the Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center.
Consequently, staff at Turtle Ridge were happy to take in the cub, who Hancock named Elkhorn. They also confirmed that Elkhorn was indeed a young black bear, as the hiker suspected. The species can be found across the forests of North America.
Black bears are opportunistic hunters that aren’t just predators; they eat both meat and vegetation, depending on what’s readily available. However, they have been known to wander into urban territory looking for food. Perhaps the starving Elkhorn had been trailing Hancock for just that reason.
“Mary [of the Turtle Ridge facility] could see… that the cub was near death,” Hancock explained. “He should have had a lot more fat on his body. He was starving and dehydrated. [He must have been in that] condition for some time to end up so thin and weak.”
Elkhorn was also diagnosed with pneumonia as a result of his exposure to the weather. Assisted by Hancock, Mary tried to get the little cub warm again with the help of a heating pad. In addition, Elkhorn was treated with an electrolyte injection. Then Hancock finally left him in Mary’s capable hands.
But although Elkhorn’s life was saved, not everyone thought Hancock had done the right thing. “Apparently, because I’d made the rescue effort so public over Facebook, Elkhorn’s story had gained a lot of attention overnight,” Hancock subsequently wrote. “Both positive and negative.”
“My message boards were being flooded with all kinds of malicious notes. [They were] sent by people who had no idea what actually occurred. Some among them must have alerted the ODFW [Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife].” Hancock in fact faced a fine or even jail time as a result of his daring rescue.
Indeed, the authorities advise against moving animals without contacting them first. After assessing the situation, however, officials concluded that Hancock had acted correctly. He was officially issued a warning but was later thanked by Turtle Ridge for his big-hearted response to a dying animal.
Furthermore, Hancock received some truly emotional thank-you messages and letters from those who appreciated his actions. And those actions worked out well for the cub, too. “Elkhorn is in the care of PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynwood, W.A., and will return to Oregon’s wilderness next spring,” Turtle Ridge revealed on Facebook in April 2017.
But what led to Hancock’s decision to save Elkhorn? “I thought about my two-year-old son, and I saw a baby that deserved to live,” he subsequently told The Washington Post in April 2017. “If I would’ve walked away from that bear, it would’ve haunted me the rest of my life.” Instead, of course, he ended up saving a life.