Andean Bear Cubs: Looking Back on a Month of Milestones
It’s a Boy… and a Girl!
While undergoing a routine cub wellness exam, veterinarians confirmed the cubs’ genders: a boy and a girl! (Keepers already suspected that there was one of each, based on their divergent behaviors.)
One cub has consistently been the more outgoing and adventurous of the two. Even during their mother’s prenatal ultrasounds it seemed that one cub was persistently more active than the other. Before the birth, keepers joked that the inactive one inherited more of their father’s genes and the active one more of their mother’s. (Their father, Nikki, is quite laid back. He spends his time soaking in his pool, napping or relaxing, and watching the goings on of the Zoo. Their mother, Billie Jean (B.J.),is outgoing, playful, and into everything. She’s a dogged climber and acquired a bit of celebrity for her arboreal nest building.)
As it turns out, keepers were right on target! Thus far, the cubs’ behaviors mirror those of their parents. Keepers think of them as “a lover and a fighter.” The male likes attention from his mother, his sister, and the keepers. The female is quite the adventurer—she’s seemingly fearless and, like her mother, is particularly inclined to climb anything she can.
You can recognize the cubs by their distinctive facial markings. The boy’s “spectacles” are thicker and curve further around his eyes than those of his sister—he's pictured in the upper left part of the page, she's pictured at right (in a tree!). The girl’s “spectacles” are thinner, resembling eyebrows that lack the bushy appearance of her brother’s.
At the beginning of April, the cubs began venturing out of the cubbing den. Up until then, they had tried repeatedly to sneak out into the big, exciting outer den but B.J., in her infinite maternal wisdom, continually thwarted their efforts. However, as the cubs approached their third month—an age when in the wild they would begin leaving their den to forage beside their mother—B.J. began allowing them to play outside the confines of the cubbing den. Initially she didn’t let them to go far, though, and they were always under her watchful eye. Keepers were able to catch glimpses of them playing behind their mother, but always from ten or 15 feet away.
From that point, things progressed quickly. Soon after the cubs’ first supervised “field trips” out of the cubbing den, they began investigating both of their large, outer dens with fervor, as well as interacting enthusiastically with the keepers. Being the relaxed, confident mom that she is, B.J. looked on while the cubs played and explored on their own.
Toward the end of the month, the cubs were so confident in their expanded environment, and their mother so comfortable with their growing independence, that keepers were able to move all three out of the maternity area entirely and into dens in the opposite wing of the building. The move was necessary to house them nearer to the smaller of the two bear yards, the yard where the cubs were to have their first outdoor adventure.
And what an adventure it was! On April 30, shortly after their move from the maternity dens, keepers began yard introductions with B.J. and the cubs. B.J. went out first, checked everything out, and then permitted the cubs to join her. In no time at all, the cubs had fearlessly explored every inch of the yard, including the trees, climbing structures, and exhibit walls. Anything they could taste, they did. Considering that it was the first time in their young lives to see grass, trees, dirt, or the sun, they seemed remarkably unfazed by the experience. Bringing the cubs inside after their brief yard exposure proved to be a bit of a challenge, but after about 45 minutes of keepers calling to them and B.J. corralling them, everyone returned to the dens safe and sound.
Since then, keepers have continued what are referred to as "soft" yard introductions. Mother and cubs are allowed outside for limited but increasing amounts of time each day, allowing them to gradually acclimate to the yard and to being outside while keepers closely monitor them. (Only Zoo staff are present during the soft introduction stage.)
One of the novel items to which the cubs were exposed when they began expanding their “home range” was solid food. Once they discovered their mother’s food pile—omnivore chow (like dog kibble) and a variety of fruit—they had an unending source of fun.
At first they picked up the food pieces to taste or investigate and then dropped them. Then, they began to treat the food as toys, scattering it throughout the den within minutes of receiving it. Once their teeth became more developed, though, they began eating the food with gusto. So much so, in fact, that nutritionists had to increase their diet twice in April! The cubs seem to like mango a lot!
Even though the cubs are eating solid food, they will continue to nurse for a year or more. As their nursing gradually declines in that time, their solid food intake will increase, so there is no doubt that there are numerous diet increases in the cubs’ future.
Another novelty that the cubs experienced in April was their first exposure to other bears.
By three months of age the cubs were well past the critical period. Keeping them in a darkened, quiet, isolated environment was no longer necessary. So, in the third week of April, keepers allowed their father to shift through one of the maternity dens (with mom and cubs secured in the neighboring den) so that he could spend some time in the larger of the two bear yards.
What excitement that caused! Nikki rubbed his head, neck, and back on every surface within reach, leaving his scent behind. He was heard vocalizing at the solid door separating him from B.J., indicating a desire to interact. B.J., on the other hand, was a bit more hesitant. She left the cubs secure in the cubbing den, and gave Nikki a few admonishing barks from her side of the door.
Then something remarkable happened! B.J. went into the cubbing den, picked up a cub in her mouth, took it to the door with Nikki on the other side and dangled it there. Nikki could see the cub through the “peek hole” (a one-inch hole in the door through which a latch may be engaged). B.J. once again had demonstrated what is extraordinary composure for a young, first-time mother; she was appropriately protective and gave Nikki just the right amount of warning, but calm enough that once she had assessed the situation she was willing to bring the cubs out.
Now that B.J. and the cubs are no longer in the maternity wing, they have a new neighbor—Bandit, the Zoo’s beautiful, 33-year-old Andean bear. Bandit isn’t always receptive to living in close proximity to other bears but, after some initial door banging and a few “huffs,” she has graciously accepted the encroachers and they are now coexisting peacefully in neighboring areas. Who says you can’t teach an old bear new tricks?
After the myriad of exciting changes in April, what could the coming months possibly bring that wouldn’t be anticlimactic? Believe it or not, even bigger things are on the horizon, not the least of which will be the cubs’ public debut and the selection of their names. Stay tuned to the Zoo’s website for details on both!