Big Move for Sun Bears

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Marcella and Palu during earlier times.

A few weeks ago, when giant panda Yun Zi’s weaning process was completed via his move to the upper bedroom area (see post Panda Yun Zi: On His Own), all eyes were on the pandas to see how they would manage this transition in their lives. Overshadowed by this event was the weaning, separation, and transition of our sun bear youngster, Palu. On the very same day that Yun Zi moved, Palu was also permanently separated from his mother.

You may recall that Palu was older than Yun Zi, born in October 2008, but had remained with Marcella, his mother, even after his sibling Pagi was weaned and moved several months ago. Although the mother-son pair had been ready to wean for some time, the logistics of weaning Palu and having him remain at the sun bear facility would have made things difficult. Unlike with the pandas, the sun bear facility does not have a distant space that a recently separated bear can be housed in. If we weaned Palu, he and Marcella would have continued to reside in proximity to one another and would be constantly exposed to each other’s smells and sounds. This situation would have impinged upon each bear’s ability to transition to independence. So we waited for a better option.

Recently, we have determined that Palu will be moving to another zoo. We are excited for him, as he will ultimately have the opportunity to be paired with a female sun bear for potential mating opportunities once he matures. This impending transition also allowed us to move Palu away from his mother into a behind-the-scenes holding area as he prepares for his journey.

Staff had seen signs that weaning was occurring naturally for these animals. The two kept away from each other when on exhibit, interacting very rarely. Nursing had not been seen in some time. Keepers had noticed indications that the two were actually scuffling from time to time. And finally, Marcella appears to have resumed her cycling, and for the sake of genetics we needed to move Palu to his own space.

Palu’s regular keeper, Crystal, had been training him to prepare Palu for his trip to the holding area. She described his attitude during training as “very focused.”  This really paid off, because during the move he was very calm, never vocalized, and immediately took to exploring his new surroundings. Clearly he was well prepared for the short trip in the crate!

In the time since, Palu has become a big hit with the staff who work near his new off-exhibit home. When he isn’t digging holes big enough to get his whole body into, he is entertaining us with his goofy antics. Like a sub-adult panda, Palu is at a social stage and appears to relish the opportunity to ham it up for staff. We will certainly miss him when he leaves.

We expect to say goodbye to Palu in about a month’s time. He will make the trip to his new home with a few trusted staff members at his side. They will help him settle in. And for the time being, Marcella will be the only sun bear on exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. That will be a short-lived prospect, however. When our staff returns, they will be bringing with them a souvenir: an adult male. We hope he’ll be a new addition to the breeding success we have had! This is incredibly important for the species, as sun bears are one of the rarest bears on the planet. Unfortunately, breeding efforts for the Bornean subspecies thus far have not been what is needed to sustain the subspecies in North American zoos.

In the end, the silver lining of Palu’s departure is that this move opens the door for fresh breeding opportunities at two zoos.  We wish him the best!

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