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Jackie Runions (left) shares her photos of a recent trip to the North American Bear Center in Ely with fellow "Lilypal" Jan Anderson during a gathering Monday at the Ground Round in Duluth. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

United by love for cub, online bear fans gather in Duluth

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Listening to the 16 people who gathered Monday at the Ground Round, you might have thought the "Lily" and "Hope" they mentioned were cherished family members.

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And even though the duo highly spoken of are mother and cub black bears, they are like family to thousands of devoted fans who've come together largely through the "Lily the Black Bear" page on Facebook. They organized an in-person meeting Monday at the restaurant in Duluth after bonding over the Internet.

"Look at this group of people from all over," said Donna Andrews, manager and curator of Ely's North American Bear Center, at the event. "They have different careers, different ages -- and they're all connecting with bears."

Andrews said she attended because she appreciates all the people cheering for the work done at the center, and she's thrilled so many people are becoming better educated about bears.

Jill Gilderman of Duluth came ready to talk bears. She was one of several people wearing T-shirts with pictures of Lily and Hope that read, "I hibernated with Lily and Hope." Gilderman also brought the bear figurines and picture frame she purchased the day before when she visited the Bear Center. Her friend Jackie Runions of Superior played a cell phone ring tone of the cub nursing.

Gilderman said she was afraid of bears before she had the chance to watch the webcam that captured 3-year-old black bear Lily before, during and after giving birth to a cub, Hope, on Jan. 22 near Ely.

"We were both scared to death of them," Gilderman said of herself and Runions.

"If I saw one now, I would take a deep breath and relax," Runions said.

Runions said she got hooked on watching Lily on the webcam after she was laid off from her job last winter. She's still so fascinated she applied to spend four days in a bear study field course at the Bear Center. She also decided to visit the Bear Center with her family on Mother's Day.

Jan Anderson of Duluth likened watching the webcam to getting a free education.

Anderson said that when she saw Lily on the webcam rustling around in her den before giving birth, she knew she had found something worth watching.

"I thought (bears) slept all winter. Gave birth but didn't know it and then their cubs just crawled up to a nipple and sat there till spring," she said. "Boy was I blown away."

She learned that bears don't actually hibernate -- they are dormant, meaning they do move around. And that's just one of the myths she said has been debunked since she began watching.

"I think Dr. (Lynn) Rogers and Sue (Mansfield) have educated us so much," she said.

Rogers and Mansfield are biologists at the North American Bear Center who are researching the activities of Lily, Hope and several other bears. They post daily updates and photos on Facebook, Twitter and their website, and Monday's news that they successfully placed a radio-collar on Hope brought hundreds of jubilant responses on Facebook in particular.

No word had yet been given on how exactly they were able to collar Hope, however, and Anderson was chomping at the bit to find out.

"I want to know every little stinkin' detail," she said.

The collar will allow researchers to track Hope's movements and learn more about bear behavior.

And although the main topic of the evening was largely bear-related, a few people pointed out that they do other things, too.

"We do have lives," Jan Anderson said with a smile.

"We're just a little obsessed," added Beret Amundson.

Members of the Lilypals, as they are known on Facebook, also planned a gathering at the same time in North Carolina, and planned a cross-country toast to Lily and Hope at 7 p.m. They were planning to call each other at that time, said Linda Smith, who set her cell phone in the center of the table so as not to forget.

Hope, now more than 5 months old, appears to be doing well in an area near Ely with supplemental feeding by researchers. They hope the feeding of formula and grapes will allow the cub to survive without Lily while learning to find food.

Lily left Hope about a month ago, and researchers said in recent reports that Lily is ready to mate and has been spotted with a male bear.

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