Bears are among the best and least known of animals. Everyone recognizes a giant panda, for instance, while few people can picture a sloth bear.

Native to the Indian sub-continent, sloth bears are fascinating, unusual bears that charm and delight those who visit them. Our new sloth bear exhibit on Asia Trail will introduce these animals to millions more people. The exhibit is the one closest to the Zoo's Connecticut Avenue entrance.

At the Zoo:

Asia Trail is home to three sloth bears—Khali and Hana, adult females, and Francois, an adult male born at the Zoo in 1991. Balawat, a male cub born at the Zoo in 2006, has left for another zoo. The sloth bear yards are the ones closest to the Zoo's Connecticut Avenue entrance.

June 2010 Update: Sloth Bear Francois Returns Home to the Zoo

Photo by FONZ Photo Club member Janice Sveda
The newest sloth bear on Asia Trail is not so new at all. Francois was born at the Zoo in 1991 and was later moved to the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas to breed. The 260-pound bear has been away from the National Zoo for seven years. Francois is one of seven cubs sired by the Zoo’s beloved sloth bear, Merlin, who died last year. According to his keepers, Francois’ disposition is not unlike his father’s.

“He is just as playful and seems to enjoy interacting with the keepers, just like Merlin did,” said Jilian Fazio, an animal keeper on Asia Trail. “He also sits Buddha-style in the same way. And he is definitely interested in the sloth bear ladies.”

Keepers hope that Francois shows special interest in 15-year-old Hana. The homecoming is actually a bit of a reunion for the two—they were together for about five years before Francois left for Little Rock. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ sloth bear Species Survival Plan, which manages breeding in order to maintain a genetically diverse zoo population, recommended that Francois now try breeding with Hana.

“If Francois and Hana produce cubs, they will further increase and genetically diversify the captive population of sloth bears,” said Mindy Babitz, an Asia Trail animal keeper and the Zoo’s institutional representative to the sloth bear SSP. “Francois is also an ambassador for his wild counterparts—not just wild sloth bears, but all Asian animals whose populations are declining due to habitat loss, poaching, and trade in animal parts.”

Ten-year-old Khali, a female who was once Merlin’s companion, will be Francois’ companion during the non-breeding season.

Meet the sloth bears on your next visit, and learn how they eat at the feeding demonstration held every day at 10:30 a.m.

April 2009 Update

It’s time to say goodbye to our little bear. Balawat, our three-year-old sloth bear, is leaving the Zoo on April 29. He will be joining a female sloth bear from the San Diego Zoo at Akron Zoo.

Sloth bears are governed by the SSP (Species Survival Plan) program, which manages breeding in order to maintain a genetically diverse zoo population. Balawat is the result of a breeding recommendation from the Sloth Bear SSP, and the SSP has recommended we send Bala to Akron to be paired with the San Diego female, who was determined to be a good match for him.  

At three years old, Bala is certainly ready to venture out on his own and start his new life. Having been separated from his mom (Hana) for a year now and temporarily paired with a non-reproductive female (Khali), he is showing signs of frustration especially now that his mom is coming into estrus.  Leaving his mom’s territory and being paired with a reproductive female will be a great move for him. His keepers will miss him very much but are also excited for him to start the next chapter of his life.

Here at Asia Trail, Merlin and Hana will hopefully be starting the next chapter for sloth bears at the Zoo. Hana recently started showing interest in Merlin again, and they have been spending time together during  the day. You can find them together in the yard most days now and we are hoping when Hana comes into estrus (anytime between May and August) that she and Merlin will breed again.

February 2009 Update

Khali and BalawatAround October we decided to stop trying to re-introduce Merlin and Hana since Hana wasn't receptive. We started doing introductions with Merlin and Balawat, Merlin and Hana's three-year-old male offspring. At first, they mostly just co-existed. They were very respectful of each other and stayed out of each other's way but didn't really become friends until sometime in November when we found them outside in the yard playing together for the first time! After that play bout, they curled up next to each other and took a nap! They've had a great relationship ever since and are put together most days for play sessions.

The pairing of our male bears seems to benefit both of them since they are playful and enjoy companionship. Merlin still needs some alone time, though, as Bala can wear him out pretty quickly so Bala spends his evenings with Khali, one of the Zoo's two female sloth bears. Some days you may see Merlin on his own (without Bala). We try to keep a close eye on his mood and energy level, and he can get cranky if he doesn't get enough rest.

We gave Khali the option of hanging out with the male bears during the day, but she likes her alone time, especially at this time of year when bears like to sleep a lot. 

Hana, who has also been spending a lot of time sleeping this winter, has been more active recently and should be seen out in the yard more when the weather is nice.

Unfortunately, the bears may not be outside for public viewing when the weather is too cold or wet since sloth bears are used to a tropical habitat and don't tolerate the cold weather too well. The yards can also get very icy making them too dangerous to traverse.

September 2008 Update

Things seem to be in constant flux up here with our sloth bears. Currently, Khali is in a yard with Balawat (shown at left), the male bear born here in early 2006. Hana, his mother, decided Bala was old enough to go off on his own this past spring; she was ready to be an empty-nester. He didn’t agree, unfortunately—one keeper thinks cubs never do—and as it is for all animals, in the wild or in zoos, it’s been a difficult time for him. Because he wasn’t adjusting well to being on his own, we began giving him visual access to Merlin, his father, and Khali, a female who arrived a few months ago, for companionship.

Khali and Bala became quick friends through the mesh door and we eventually decided to put them together since Bala seemed to benefit greatly from her companionship. Unfortunately, that means Merlin is on his own again, but he’s a big boy and he’s comfortable being on his own (which Bala wasn’t). Merlin now has visual access to Khali and Bala, so they interact at the mesh door in the evening when everyone is inside.

We’ve been doing intros between Merlin and Hana in the hopes of getting the two of them back together, but it hasn’t been as successful as we’d hoped. Hana seems pretty content being on her own again and isn’t that interested in being with Merlin. Merlin has been excited to see her again but the feelings aren’t being reciprocated. We have yet to make a decision about whether to continue pursuing their relationship or whether to look into the possibility of trying to put Merlin with Khali and Bala (not a typical grouping for sloth bears but one that may work well for ours).

Female Sloth Bear Debuts at the Zoo (April 2008)

KhaliVisitors exploring Asia Trail can now see Khali, a nine-year-old female sloth bear who is a non-breeding companion for 26-year-old male sloth bear Merlin.

She arrived from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle late last year, but has only recently joined Merlin on exhibit following gradual introductions between the pair. In addition to Khali and Merlin, the Zoo is also home to two other sloth bears, 13-year-old Hana, and her two-year-old cub, Balawat. He is about the age when sloth bear cubs become independent of their mothers and is currently exhibited separately from his mother.

Sloth Bear Cub Weighs 200 Pounds (January 2008)

Balawat, our sloth bear cub, turned two on January 9! He’s currently weighing in at a little over 200 pounds, just slightly heavier than his mom, but looking much larger due to the thick, fluffy coat of hair he’s sporting.

Despite his size, Bala is still very much a cub. He still nurses occasionally, loves to run around and play with his enrichment toys (such as feeder balls), and is a star when it comes to training. He has been trained to have his teeth brushed, and gets on the scale like a pro.

It is normal for sloth bear cubs to stay with their mother for up to three years, so Bala still has a ways to go in terms of growing up, and Hana is still pretty protective of him.

Spring 2007 Update

He’s an absolute star at training. We’ve trained many behaviors with him—open mouth, show paws, show feet, stand up, lie down—and recently we started brushing his teeth.

Sloth bears have notoriously bad teeth because, when they suck up insects, some dirt or tree bark will get in too, and it wears away the bears' teeth. We’re hoping to keep Bala’s teeth in better shape by starting young. He’s very good at holding the open-mouth position and seems to enjoy the brushing sensation against his teeth and gums. Only occasionally does he try to steal the toothbrush, but every time he gives it right back so we can continue brushing.

We have moved the time of our daily sloth bear feeding demos to 11:30 since the bears have been napping in the heat of the day and not getting up for the 2:30 demos. We have also started doing some of the training with Bala on exhibit (during the demo) so the public can see something that is usually done behind the scenes. We just ask him for the behaviors up at the glass and then reward him with mealworms through the termite mound.

The termite mound is in the exhibit and has a tube that goes to the other side, kept behind a locked door. During the demos, we unlock the door, place mealworms in our hands, and hold one end of the tube over the mealworms. The sloth bears go up to the termite mound and suck up the mealworms through the long tube. click for more daily programs

See a map of the Asia Trail animal habitats.