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Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, ate too much, and took a moment to reflect on the things they are most grateful for. This year I am thankful for my family, and especially for my new baby daughter at home. My Thanksgiving was a bit different this year though…instead of baking apple pies and other goodies to bring over to my family’s house, I was watching our new sloth bear, Buddha.

Thanksgiving day was his second day in his new exhibit, and we needed to be there to observe how he reacted to his new enclosure. As my co-worker Suzanne mentioned in her previous blog, A New Bear On the Block, Buddha will be the first participant in a new research study conducted by the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit.

In this new study, we will look at how well pre-marking an animal’s enclosure with his own scent helps reduce a stress response to translocation. Often animals need to be moved from one enclosure to another, and we know that this translocation process can be a stressful experience. Therefore, we’re always looking for ways to reduce this stress response and promote well-being. So, if we pre-mark an animal’s enclosure with his own scent, will that ease the transition?

To test this, we divided Buddha’s exhibit in half, marking one side with his (previously collected) feces and fur, and leaving the other side as our control without his scent. Then we observed his behavior. Would he show a preference for the side that contains his own smell? Would he still demonstrate the typical stress-related behaviors? Or would he calmly explore his new environment?

On day one of the study, Suzanne observed some interesting behavior. I, unfortunately, didn’t observe much on day two. Buddha chose to spend most of Thanksgiving morning out of view in the back bedroom area. Not only was my data a bit uninteresting, but it was also pouring rain. I got drenched!

So, despite the fact that I would have rather been home celebrating the holiday with my family, at least we finished the first phase of this study. And the thing is, the bears (and all the animals at the Zoo for that matter) don’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. In this line of work we have to bend to their needs and schedules sometimes before our own.

We haven’t begun analyzing any of the data yet, but check back soon for an update on what we’ve learned from this interesting new study. And here’s hoping that the next phase of this study doesn’t fall on Christmas!

Pamela Crowe is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.

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A New Bear On the Block

Slurp, slurp.

What’s that sound? If you are in the San Diego Zoo’s Bear Canyon over Thanksgiving weekend, you may be hearing the sound of our newest bear resident feeding. Our sloth bear will go on exhibit tomorrow, and he adds an interesting new dimension to our resident bear population.

Sloth bears feed on insects and have special adaptations to aid them in their foraging. They have ample, loose lips to create a type of “straw” for suction and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to suck things up into their mouths easily. They are so effective at creating suction that it is said you can hear them slurping as far away as the length of a football field! Come test this factoid yourself: can you hear our sloth bear from the bottom of Bear Canyon?

I learned today that sloth bears can use their incredible suction-creating modifications for another purpose; if agitated, the bear can turn that gap-and-straw into a powerful phlegm-spitting tool, much like that of a camel. Might not want to look cross-eyed at our new bear when you visit!

Named Buddha, our new sloth bear is an eight-year-old male who came to us last month. He will begin his life at the San Diego Zoo by inaugurating a new research study the Giant Panda Conservation Unit will begin with his arrival on exhibit. This is the first in an intensive line of work we hope to do with his species because, like the other rare bears in our collection, little is known about sloth bears. We hope to be a factor in changing that reality for these fascinating, shaggy bears.

Sloth bears are another bear species listed as vulnerable to extinction, like the sun, Andean or spectacled, and polar bears in our collection. Sloth bears are native to India and surrounding areas, but have been largely eradicated from many parts of their historic range due to habitat destruction and encroachment by humans. Sadly, sloth bears are also at risk of poaching, and females are often killed to capture infant bears, some as young a few days old. These cubs are often bound for the dancing bear and pet trade, where they meet a sad fate of pain and humiliation to earn money for their keepers.

But Buddha is far from the darker side of the sloth bear world, and he is here for you to admire and learn about. Come see his marvelous long claws, used to extract termites from their nests. Notice his long, shaggy coat, an adaptation that allows cubs to grip better as they ride –yes, ride- on their mother’s back. And be glad for the moat between you and he, because sloth bears are well known to be among the most dangerous of bears.

Welcome, Buddha bear! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo.