First Steps for Francis

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Will Marcella (pictured) welcome Francis?

This week we welcomed a new animal to the San Diego Zoo’s Asian Passage. Francis, the sun bear recently arrived from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle (see post Sun Bear Travels), exited quarantine and was introduced to his new permanent living quarters in Sun Bear Forest. His arrival heralded an opportunity for us to collect more data for our bear translocation study, first begun in 2008 with sloth bears (see post Ken: Sloth Bear Extraordinaire).

Our translocation study aims to determine if it is possible to reduce the stress associated with moving a bear into a new space. Such a transition can be a daunting experience for an animal, as it exposes them to a new environment with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and scents. We hope to discover if we can mitigate the bear’s natural anxiety by depositing its own scent in places around the exhibit.

To perform the study this week, we had staff collect fecal piles from Francis while he was in quarantine. Care was taken to ensure collection occurred at times when he was calm for an extended period, so the fecal samples did not contain the residue of stress hormones. On the morning he was released to his new exhibit, we achieved an “air of familiarity” in certain areas of the space by placing fecal piles in those areas. After he was released to the exhibit, we looked to see if he spent more time in pre-marked areas than unmarked ones and if his behavior was different between the two areas.

Francis experienced his first day on exhibit on May 3. Although he displayed a healthy sense of caution, he did fully explore the whole exhibit, ate his kibble and vegetables on exhibit, and even spent a little time resting in his new climbing structure. It was interesting to watch him explore the water features: he was initially nervous about the waterfall, but clearly curious. He returned to the falls several times throughout the day, and eventually he walked right through them. With persistence, he tackled that challenge.

It’s too early to tell you what the results of the study might be. Although we have now had four bears participate, we are hoping to obtain data on at least twice that many individuals before analyzing it. However, I am optimistic about Francis; his willingness to address his initial reticence about the waterfall shows me that this bear has some level of confidence that could help him one day to become a new mate of our female, Marcella. What a success that would be, since the Bornean sun bears are so in need of a boost to their population in U.S. zoos!

Come visit the Sun Bear Trail in Asian Passage and keep an eye out for Francis. You can identify him by his sleek frame (as compared to Marcella) and the brown fur above his eyes. And cross your fingers for his future and the future of Bornean sun bears everywhere!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Picture-Perfect Pair.