CUSTER COUNTY - The Sanders are keeping a distance, laughing quietly and covering their mouths, as if to hide their pleasure.

But they can't help it. "The bears, I call them nature's clowns," says their temporary, tough-loving mother, Cecilia "Cec" Sanders. "They're just so funny."

And right now, the growing orphans are putting on a show in their cage. The three are rolling on top of each other, hugging and wrestling, playing hide and seek in the dens built for them by Sanders' husband, Tom.

Before long, Cec sneaks around the cage with a hose - water for the tubs. As soon as they spot her, the bears dart back into their dens, as if fearful.

"That's what we want to see," Tom says.

Nature and nurture

The retired schoolteachers' property hides behind piñon and juniper stands and thick patches of scrub oak, back against the craggy slopes of the Wet Mountains. For 32 years, they've made this a refuge for abandoned or hurt mammals, taking in cubs, fawns, foxes, badgers and even mountain lions - whatever needs a home, as determined by the wildlife officers who pick them up in Colorado Springs and farther south.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife keeps a list of 52 licensed rehabbers around the state, but that doesn't account for them all, as some prefer not to make their information public. The agency depends on volunteers to care for all animals, from songbirds, to raptors, to rabbits, to mammals small and large.

"Without volunteers to do that kind of work, it's not gonna get done," says this area's wildlife manager, Frank McGee. "With all the species we manage, it just wouldn't be responsible to use all that money that would be required."

The responsibility is greatest for people who feed bears for hibernation, who tend the cages of creatures that can be dangerous. Among rehabbers sharing the Sanders' specialty, "you can count them on one hand in the whole state," McGee says.

They're tasked with toeing the fine line between nurture and nature. Before officers return to release them in the hills, the Sanders must fatten the bears, and they do so by loading their pickup truck with groceries, lots of fruit, nuts and lettuce. The couple dumps grass in the cages, too, knowing the bears can gobble 20,000 calories a day before hibernation.

Cec also enters to clean their poop and clutter. But she doesn't linger, and if the bears show affection, she'll bop them on the head or behind. If the affection continues, she hails her husband, however reluctantly, to spray the fire extinguisher.

When cubs come to her, Cec gives them stuffed animals to cuddle. That's as far as she lets her human tenderness go.

"How can you not just hold them and cuddle them all day long?" she says, repeating the question of friends. "I'd love to, but I respect them too much."

Adds Tom: "If you habituate them with any people, you're basically killing them."

The little twins under their watch were found wandering near Coaldale without their mother. They are two of the six bears currently rehabbing - an alarming number at the start of May, the Sanders say.

Some summers they take in no cubs. Sometimes it's a few. Last season, in what McGee called a "bad bear year," it was 15.

Last year, he says, about 30 bears were euthanized in the area he oversees, including El Paso and Teller counties. Many were frequenting neighborhoods for trash, some with their cubs, which were taken to the Sanders. Others, such as one being rehabbed now, are picked up beside their dead mothers, victims of cars.

"We've just tried to meet the demand, and that demand keeps increasing," Tom says.

Last year's urban issues were blamed on "food failure" in the wild. Plants struggled after a dry spring, and bears found it all too easy to feast in town.

So from their home, the Sanders gaze northwest, beyond the valley, hoping to see snow on Pikes Peak, a sign of moisture, of food growing for their bears released in those foothills.

Cec says goodbye to them, proud to see them fat. Those are the rewarding moments of the job.

But worry settles in, not unlike that of a parent sending their child off into an unpredictable world.

"You can't guarantee them anything after they leave here, but a chance to go out and be a bear," she says.

A lifelong mission

That has been the Sanders' mission for most of their 46 years married. The Pueblo natives bonded over wildlife, hiking and backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and going off trail in hopes of sightings.

"I would just be excited to see a deer," Cec says. "Now we practically live with them."

Once hurt and malnourished, they roam the Sanders' property now healthy by the goat milk they're fed by baby bottles. Inside the house, a dozen unwanted macaws and cockatoos have a whole room, and they squawk and whistle except at night when their caretakers sleep. By the kitchen, the Sanders have built a pond for turtles and koi.

The couple moved here in 1986, when they realized their Pueblo home could no longer support their volunteering. They signed up after a recommendation from a veterinarian, who'd taken all the hurt birds and critters the Sanders would find in the mountains.

The couple quickly garnered a reputation among wildlife officers.

"We wound up getting a mountain lion there," Tom recalls, the first of 19 over the years. "That was about the time we decided we should probably get outta town."

The job took a toll on them financially at first. Now, they say, their nonprofit Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation gathers enough donations to cover most costs.

But one can't be covered. That's the emotional cost.

"Every year," Tom says, "we get at least a few animals that come in either so injured or ill that it's hopeless."

A fawn with maggots coating her side, ripped by barbed wire.

A cub that unlike its mother survived electrocution but could not walk. All the cubs without their mothers because of people.

"A lot of heartbreak in what we do," Cec says, choking up. "But there's still a lot more positives than negatives."


Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­