Ken: Sloth Bear Extraordinaire

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I had an opportunity last week to continue work on our ursid translocational stress study (see blog, Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha), by incorporating a new animal into our data collection: a sloth bear named Ken. He was moved out on exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s Bear Canyon for the first time on Friday, February 27. Ken is an impressive animal, a good-sized bear with a long, shaggy coat that gives him the appearance of permanent “bed head.” He has a lot of energy, and I wondered if he would take his move to the exhibit space in stride.

And he did very well. Ken left no stone unturned in the first several hours of his time on exhibit. He cleared all of his food in a matter of minutes. He sniffed everywhere. He dug big holes, enough to sink his whole head and shoulders into. He broke off a piece of the climbing structure. What a bear!

When you watch Ken in action, you may get to see some of the interesting things that make sloth bears unique. His really long claws are well suited to their natural diet of insects, and tearing at termite mounds is a cinch with such treacherous toenails. He has a gap in his front teeth that, among other things, allows him to blow a focused puff of air out of his mouth really hard, an adaptation that helps him to clear dust and debris so that wriggling insects are more exposed to him. He also uses that gap to make an interesting vocalization, a type of Bronx cheer that he has been known to use to greet Zoo visitors! And why does he have such a long coat? It is thought to be an adaptation very useful for female sloth bears that carry their young on their backs. Long hair is easier for their cubs to grip, and they can hold on better while mom travels long distances looking for food.

You may recall the arrival of Ken’s brother, Bhutan (formerly named Buddha), late last year. These two boys had been housed together for many years at a private ranch in Tennessee. However, as they aged, they started to become aggressive to one another, and they cannot share an exhibit today. As such, Ken and Bhutan will rotate time on exhibit, with one bear greeting our Zoo guests while the other enjoys some quiet time in an outdoor sunroom behind the scenes. We have another sloth bear, a female named Keesha, who is currently in quarantine at our veterinary hospital. In a few weeks she will join our boys in Bear Canyon, adding a feminine dimension to our opportunity to study this vulnerable species.

We are very fortunate to have five of the eight living species of bear at the San Diego Zoo and hope that you have the opportunity to come and see them all sometime soon. March is the month we will celebrate bears with San Diego Zoo Discovery Days: Bear Bonanza (formerly Bear Awareness), and it’s a great time to learn more about all things bear. Come see Ken, Bhutan, and all of our other rare and interesting bears sometime soon!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research.