Enriching the lives of brown bears in a managed-care facility can be an exciting and challenging task. In the wild, these highly intelligent animals spend the majority of their lives navigating their environment in a constant quest for food. Every part of them is adapted to be skilled at hunting, fishing, browsing, grazing, digging, shredding, and any other activity that produces that nutritious morsel. For grizzly bears like Scout and Montana, and Manchurian brown bear Blackie, residents at the San Diego Zoo, life is a little bit easier. Since these brown bears don’t have to expend so much energy constantly looking for their next meal, that leaves a lot more time to play!
And that’s when a bear keeper has to step up to the plate. A big part of our job is finding creative and novel ways to encourage an active lifestyle. Some of the things we do may not seem like much, but when you know the personalities of the bears, every little thing adds up. For instance, I was watching Montana one day play with his palm fronds in the pool. He would let the frond sink, then stirred up the water with his hind feet until the frond rose and he could grab it with his front paws. He would then manipulate the frond, seemingly intrigued by the way it moved in the water. This observation has helped me to offer all kinds of things for Montana and Scout to do in the water. Sometimes I put things in the water for them, like sticks, and other times they bring it in themselves. Just this past week, I came in to work to find the boys had dragged an enormous load of hay into the pool and were swimming around in the swampy mess as happy as could be! Needless to say, the exhibit took extra long to clean, but knowing what fun they had made it all worth it.
Another fun thing the bears received recently was grass sod. We lined part of the exhibit with the sod and watched to see what they did over the next few days. Scout and Montana thought it was great, promptly taking some of it into the pool! Later they settled down on the grassy carpet for a long nap and have continued sleeping on it each day. Blackie, our older brown bear, was not impressed. However, since we placed his favorite foods on the grass, he did at least walk over it, but he then decided he would lie far away from it. Yet just the presence of something new in his environment was enriching, and he had to think about how he wanted to handle it. Blackie does, however, enjoy his swimming time, his femur bones twice a week, and his training sessions, where he is learning how to sit still for injections that will help him with his arthritis. This is great fun for him, as he receives lots of special treats and attention from his keepers!
Something especially wonderful we are hoping to get for our brown bears is SNOW! Scout and Montana came to sunny San Diego when they were 10 months old. The only time they could have seen snow would have been when they emerged from their den in the spring as tiny cubs. Blackie was born in Beijing, China, where it’s unlikely he saw any snow, and then he came to San Diego when he was two years old. He also spent some time in Tennessee, where he may have seen some, and now he’s back in San Diego where snow isn’t possible…or is it?
Listed on our Animal Care Wish List is a request for snow to give our brown bears. Anyone can help contribute as little as $10 to the cause. Once we raise enough money, we can have a big ice truck come and blow snow into the exhibit for a most exciting time! We’ll try to get photos or video of the bears’ snow day to share with our readers and donors.
Judging from the great fun the polar bears have with snow, we are anticipating that Scout and Montana will enjoy digging and rolling in it. And I’d like to see them try to drag it into the pool! The keepers can hide treats in the snow, too, for an added bonus. It would be interesting to see what Blackie would do with it; I suspect he would like the coolness of it, and if there are treats to dig for, he’s all over it!
Usually someone says they pray for sun, but today the brown bear boys and I are praying for snow!
Hali O’Connor is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Brown Bear Changes.