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How do you sum up a life?

At the end of 2020, we shared several posts about Virginia, our 16-year-old black bear, her trip to the NCSU Veterinary Hospital, and her medical issues. We said then we would do what we could for her health and welfare until the time came when treatments were no longer effective. Well, the time came, and yesterday we safely and humanly euthanized Virginia.

On Sunday, I attended a memorial service for my sister-in-law’s father. It was several hours of storytelling, remembrances, tears, heartache, smiles, and laughter, from family, friends, and colleagues from around the world. I am sure if we had a virtual memorial service for Virginia, the attendees would be similar and the stories and emotions the same.


A younger Virginia, not yet fully grown into the adult, round bear she would become

For me, I’ve been thinking about Monday’s event for years. I knew the day would come when the gift of euthanasia would be given. My reflections have been vast, as have my emotions. It was in May 2005 when I communicated with wildlife officials about an orphaned cub needing a home. The note from the wildlife veterinarian who examined Virginia the day before she arrived at the Museum said she was a healthy cub, however, “… my examination was not detailed as she was somewhat uncooperative!” Always a good sign to have an uncooperative cub.

Virginia, unnamed at the time, spent her first bit of time behind the scenes in a quarantine stall in the Farmyard. At just over 15 pounds, she wasn’t any taller than the head of our broom.

She arrived at the Museum on a Thursday morning. The wildlife official pulled into our parking lot, stepped out of his pick-up truck, and reached his arm into the bed of his truck. He lifted a small crate— one the size of our rabbit transport crates—and walked over to me. Thus began my time with Virginia. June 2, 2005. One month in quarantine, then two months in Carolina Wildlife, bottle feeding, growing, starting to eat solid food, and meeting museum guests until we moved her down to the newly renovated bear habitat.


Virginia spent a couple months in a habitat in Carolina Wildlife, meeting guests up close, while the bear habitat in Explore the Wild was finished.


Once in our one-acre bear habitat, Virginia slowly navigated through different parts. I remember her moving through each new area with apparent caution and trepidation (Not really sure what she was thinking but that’s sure how it looked to me). Eventually, she started climbing trees, navigating dead fall and boulders, running through the grassy yard, and swimming in the pools with ease.



She spent loads of hours sleeping on the upper level (what we call “the cliff”) of the bear habitat. This seemed to be her home away from home, making a nest, her bed, in specific spaces—if we could not find her in the vicinity of the other bears, we’d radio “Did you check her bed”?


Virginia, in her nest/bed, on the cliff


She was an avid swimmer and finding her in one of the pools on warm days, or retrieving watermelons, was a common sight. I’ll remember her shaggy thick coat of fur, even in August as her late shedding made me sweat and roll my eyes every single year I saw her that way.


Retrieving a melon from the pool. (Always with a shaggy coat, being the late shedder she was)

Her distinctive white “V” blaze on her chest made her very noticeable. One of our staff members even dressed up as Virginia in a bear escape drill we conducted about 8 years ago. It was quite the scene.


Sleeping in the bear house in a pile of pine straw, with her white “V” blaze easily seen.


Whether it was giving her laser and acupuncture treatments or watching her sleep in funny positions, or yelling for her to come down to the house, there are over 15 years of stories and memories.



I literally bottle fed this bear and watched her grow up at the Museum. She’s family. It’s hard losing family, even if it’s clear the time is right. For those of you reading this who knew Virginia, cared about her, or love the Museum and the people who care for the animals, my condolences to you as well.



So, how do you sum up a life? I think it’s with reflection, conversation, connection, and storytelling. And, if the amount of tears, smiles, and stories are any indication of how well lived a life is, Virginia surely led a good one, and I for one am better for having had time with her.