Update May 10, 2018: Jimbo the Kodiak bear has died since this story was originally published.
As it turns out, bears need love, too.
At least, according to this video. The clip above shows a man literally bear-hugging a grown Kodiak bear named Jimbo around his head and petting him on the back of the neck. The man then sits down next to Jimbo and, after removing a yellow work glow, lets the bear lick his hand.
Born to captive parents at a wildlife park in California, Jimbo was brought to the nonprofit Orphaned Wildlife Center as an injured cub years ago. When the park went under, the center took him in because he wouldn't have been able to survive in the wild. Jimbo popped up on peoples' Facebook feeds in 2016 when a video of Kowalczik playing with the then-22-year-old bear surfaced, drawing millions of views. At 23 years old, Jimbo was the biggest bear at the center, weighing about 1,500 pounds and measuring 9-and-a-half feet tall.
Jimbo was sick for a little while, but after some time he recovered. However, on March 20, the calm, gentle bear died of liver cancer at 24. Kodiak bears can live into their late 20s or, in some cases, early 30s. (Related: read about the biggest bear ever found.)
Jimbo was one of 11 bears that live on the property of Jim and Susan Kowalczik in Otisville, New York. Jim, 62, is a retired corrections officer and Susan, 59, has been working with bears her whole life. The couple met in 1992, and three years later, began an educational exhibit called Bear Country.
Jim and Susan became licensed wildlife rehabilitators in 1996, but they didn't start the Orphaned Wildlife Center until an American black bear cub came into their lives in July 2012. Hit by a car when he was 28 months old, the bear was brought in with a swollen brain and a broken hind leg. He was in a coma for a few days, and when he opened his eyes after nearly a week, the Kowalcziks were able to feed him baby food and raw eggs through a syringe. He soon grew strong enough to have surgery done, and the couple eventually named him Frankie.
The Orphaned Wildlife Center tries to provide a safe and nurturing environment for abandoned animals, the Kowalcziks say. In addition to the resident bears, the Kowalcziks rehabilitate horses, deer, and squirrels. (Related: "Rescued Bear With Amputated Paws Learns to Walk Again")
The ultimate goal of the center is to heal the animals so that they can be released back into the wild, and for many of the smaller species, this is generally the case. But most of the bears were born in captivity or have been orphaned at an early age, so they wouldn't be able to readapt to their natural environment. The center's eight Syrian brown bears came from a failed breeding program and are originally from the Middle East. Other bears have been hit by cars, or their mothers have been killed in car accidents. (Watch: "Escaped Bear Startles Pedestrians on Crowded Street")
Instead of being released, these bears will either live at the center for the rest of their lives or be transferred to another wildlife sanctuary. Like Jimbo, Frankie's situation is one such case. (Watch: "Orphaned Bear Cub Moves to Adopted Home")
"He's not releasable," Jim says. "He's just part of the family now."
Labor of Love
The center is on the Kowalcziks' home property, so it is not set up like a zoo or animal shelter. Except for highly regulated tours, the public is not allowed to visit, and they can't touch the animals. Only the Kowalcziks can physically interact with the bears.
"They are wild animals, and how they would react to someone else," Kowalczik says, "I'm not saying it's going to be the same to how they react to [us]."
Since Frankie was brought to the center at an older age than the rest of the bears, Kowalczik says they're cautious around him. Kowalczik is never scared the animals will attack him, though he knows they could if they wanted to.
The Kowalcziks say the bears are like their children. None of them are taught tricks or asked to do anything other than be their bear selves. The small staff of Jim and Susan do all the daily care and maintenance, and they do not get paid.
Kerry Clair, a retired IT specialist, runs the administrative work for the center, overseeing financial and fundraising efforts, as well as the center's Facebook page and website. Clair also does not get paid.
"Everything we do is for the animals," Kowalczik says. "This is our life, taking care of these animals."