This week, news of a family in China who had allegedly thought they had adopted a Tibetan mastiff was circulating after it was revealed that the dog was, in fact, an Asiatic black bear. The family, who had raised the bear for two years on boxes of fruit and buckets of noodles, told local media they couldn’t figure out why the animal kept growing, and were reportedly surprised to learn of its true identity.
Perhaps surprisingly, this sort of mix-up happens fairly often. There are other stories of people who have taken in animals thinking they’re domesticated, only to realize the animals are wild creatures. Earlier this month, a woman handed over a fox to a Chinese zoo after raising it as a Japanese spitz for nearly a year. In April, National Geographic reported on a man who had taken a leopard cat from the wild after apparently mistaking it for a domestic kitten.
(This case of mistaken identity seems to go both ways, too. In 2016, British outlets ran a story about a man in Blackpool who was concerned people would mistake his tanuki for a feral raccoon. Also called raccoon dogs, the East Asian species bears an uncanny resemblance to the wild animal.)
However, it’s hard to mistake wild animals for domesticated ones, experts say. Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in San Antonio, says young wild animals have a different look and smell to them compared to domesticated pets. Wild animals will be more scared and anxious in unfamiliar environments with humans than their domesticated counterparts might be.
“You never think you’re hearing a dog or a puppy when you hear a bear,” Cuny says. “My first reaction to this is that there’s something more going on here than just an honest mistake. This should never happen.”
If a person is tied up in a controversial situation with animals, saying they mistook a wild animal for a domesticated one could be a way out. Just this month, a woman in San Antonio was issued a criminal citation after she admitted lying about finding a pair of bobcat kittens in an alleyway. In Texas, there is a ban on owning exotic animals like bobcats.
Asiatic black bears are listed as a vulnerable species. They’re in high demand in places like Vietnam, where they’re illegally traded and milked for their bile. The yellow liquid is falsely marketed as a treatment for everything from cancer to hangovers.
Cuny adds that the problem of animals being taken from their homes in the wild all comes back to how we treat—and, in some cases, abuse—animals.
“If this happened to a person,” Cuny says, “everybody would be up in arms.”