Meet Jim and Susan Kowalczik – the incredible couple who run a centre for orphaned wildlife in Otisville, New York.
But alongside the animals that they nurse back to health before releasing into wild, the sanctuary is also home to some very special permanent residents!
The couple care for 11 bears – nearly all of which were rescued when they were cubs from breeding programmes or nature reserves that were closing down.
One of the biggest characters in their bear family is Jimmy – a 21-year-old Kodiak bear that the couple have raised since he was tiny. But he’s not so little anymore!
Susan explains, ‘We’ve had Jimmy for 21 years now. We got him as a little cub and he’s been with us his whole life.’
‘He’s about 1400lb and if he stood up on his hind legs he’d probably be about 9 feet tall.’
‘Think of the strongest person you know, or whatever, and you can magnify that by a thousand times! Yeah he’s big. I mean a small bear will kick your butt and he’s got so much strength all he would have to do is lay on you,’ adds Jim.
Although they have strong bonds with the animals, Jim explains that it’s crucial for them to be alert at all times when interacting with the bears.
‘They knock you around a little bit, not maliciously but you gotta watch you don’t get scratched or poked in the eye or something.’
‘They’d kill you, you know, they just have to hit you one time.’
And even though Susan has worked with bears her whole life – it’s her husband Jim that they’ve taken the biggest shine to!
‘I’m there everyday but he’s the one that walks in the door and everybody lights up! It’s kind of funny because they just love him to death. And I’m the one that does all the work – and he just has to walk in the door!’
After spending so much of their time looking after the bears, it’s unsurprising that Susan and Jim feel so strongly about them. Devastatingly, they’ve lost 4 bears so far and liken the experience to mourning a child or a family member.
Jim says, ‘They’re like your children, that’s how much you love them. And they give a lot back to you too you know, they love you just as much. Sometimes you take it for granted but it is a special relationship.’
‘This is our life and we’re one big bear family.’