Andean Bear Cub Update: First Days Out of the Den

This Andean bear cub update was written by animal keeper Sara Colandrea 

It’s been a couple weeks since our Andean bear cubs were introduced to their new space.  In case you hadn't heard, Ian and Sean successfully made the transition from the behind-the-scenes indoor cubbing den to the outdoor yards at the American Trail at the end of March. 

Getting to see, smell, and explore new areas is so exciting for them and us as keepers! Both of the four-month-old cubs love climbing the trees, rolling in the grass and tussling with each other. 

Developmentally speaking, the cubs are just barely starting to interact outside of the watchful eye of their mother, 4-year-old Brienne. Both Ian (who has a triangle patch on his forehead) and Sean (who has a hook over his right eye) are playful, curious and energetic. Before they were allowed out of the cubbing den, Sean never ventured too far away from his mom. But now that they have a whole outdoor yard to play in, he is just as adventurous as his brother! 

We made a few small changes to the bear’s habitat area before the cubs got to explore for the first time. Believe it or not, we didn’t have to do much cub-proofing. Andean bears are amazing climbers, and as such, they’re built to handle a fall. It’s part of what makes them unique as a species. 

Before the boys were allowed out into the yard, we lined the dry moat—which separates the bears from Zoo visitors—with hay. That way, on the off chance that one of the cubs were to fall down into the moat, they would have a soft landing.  

Our team also drained the pool in the yard and filled it with hay... which Brienne promptly removed so she could build a nest with it. But once we saw the cubs climb in and out of the pool easily, we knew it would be safe to add a few inches of water so the bears could play in it if they wanted to.  

I was over the moon watching them on their first venture outside. Seeing them climb and bound around the yard is just so heartwarming.  

Ian, the four-month-old Andean bear cub, climbs a tree in his new habitat.
Andean bear cub Ian climbs a tree in the outdoor yard. 

As she has been the whole time, Brienne has been PHENOMENAL through this entire process. She allows the cubs to explore, letting them play, climb and run all over their habitat. But when she’s had enough or wants them to move, she makes her wishes known to the cubs.  

When she is ready for them to come down from the trees, she climbs up and starts the corralling process of getting them down. She also keeps them back from ledges when she isn't comfortable with how they are standing or playing.  

When the adult bears are watching from the other yard, she huffs at them to let them know the cubs are not for them to be around. (In the wild, only the mother bear raises her cubs; fathers don’t really interact with their own young, and it’s possible Quito may not fully recognize that the little cubs in the next yard over are his own.)   

When I’m out in the park watching the cubs, the question visitors ask me the most is, “aren’t you afraid they’ll fall from the trees?” 

Nope. These bears are meant to climb. In the wild, Andean bears will spend A LOT of time in trees—especially when they are younger—and are quite comfortable making nests and eating branches, leaves and fruit, even from a young age. They don’t have to be taught. They’re just natural climbers.  

Another question zoo visitors ask me is if Brienne is more worried about one cub climbing than another. That’s because we’ve seen her climb up the tree, bring one down, wait for a while, and then go up to bring down the other one. I can’t know for sure what goes on in her head, but in my opinion, she’s not playing favorites.  She’s just one mom with two rambunctious boys! What it seems like she’s doing is going up the tree to grab one, hoping the other will follow her instructions, and then when that fails, going up and eventually grabbing the other. She does not ever seem to favor one cub over the other; it might just be that one cub is an easier grab for her at that time.  

You can come by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and see these adorable cubs in person! Plus, you can keep up with keeper updates on the cubs  here

Here at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, we rely on generous donors to support our conservation efforts, including our work with Andean bears. Please consider becoming a champion for these bears and the other animals at the Zoo by making a contribution here.