VICTORIA - Two orphaned black bear cubs that owe their lives to a Vancouver Island conservation officer who refused orders to kill the brother and sister still face an uncertain future.

The cubs, named Athena and Jordan, sat in the corner of a holding pen on Wednesday at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association awaiting their fate, which could involve rehabilitation, release or euthanasia.

Insp. Chris Doyle of the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service said the cubs' future remains unclear because when wild animals - even very young ones - get close to humans they become habituated.

“Obviously, the preference is to keep the bears alive and wild and to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place,” he said.

“Communities, businesses and residents need to do their part to keep bears wild. It's a horrible situation to have to put down an animal of any kind. The public, generally, does not want to see that happen. Nobody wants to see it happen.”

B.C. Environment Ministry statistics show that conservation officers destroyed 32 black bears last month, relocated 10 bears and frightened off 21 bears. No black bear cubs were sent to rehabilitation.

Doyle said bears, especially cubs, are not handed an immediate death sentence when they come into conflict with humans, but the odds are not in their favour.

“Senior ministry staff, biologists, as well as wildlife veterinarians will determine how the orphaned cubs are dealt with and we'll use various assessment tools, including ... the level of habituation and the level of food conditioning of those cubs to determine what can happen,” he said.

Doyle said initial examinations of the cubs point to exposure to conflict and habituation.

The cubs were orphaned when their mother was killed after breaking into a meat freezer inside a mobile home in Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island.

The photogenic pair, believed to be about five months old, has since gained international attention when it was reported that conservation officer Bryce Casavant was suspended for refusing an order to destroy the cubs last weekend.

Doyle said he could not discuss what he described as a personnel matter, but did not dispute reports that Casavant was suspended with pay for his refusal to kill the cubs.

Robin Campbell, a spokesman for the centre where the bears are being held, said Casavant's actions were heroic and called for the officer to be immediately reinstated.

Campbell said it would have been easier for Casavant to follow orders, but he took the high road.

“The easy thing to do is he's way up north, nobody is going to know. He pops a couple of bear cubs and throws them in the bush and away he goes and starts worrying about the fires up there.”

About 50,000 people have signed an online petition asking that Casavant be reinstated.