Vicki, like other sloth bears, is intelligent, engaging and full of personality.
“It is a full-time job for animal keeper teams to provide opportunities for sloth bears to behave naturally in human care,” notes Michael Brown-Palsgrove, curator of the Asia Trail.
Before arriving at the Zoo this fall, Vicki had experienced much of her sloth bear life in the company of a mate: a male sloth bear named Rajani. But after Rajani passed away from cancer in 2019, Vicki’s keeper team at Capron Park Zoo in Massachusetts could tell she missed his companionship.
When the Asia Trail keeper team began planning for the arrival of a female sloth bear, they did so with the goal of allowing her to thrive in the companionship of members of her species—but first, they needed to help her feel at home.
Not Your Average Bear
Native to the dense forests of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, sloth bears might be the most unique among the world’s eight species of bears. (To set the record straight: they’re bears, not sloths. However, their curved claws and shaggy fur apparently gave a sloth-like impression to the 18th century European biologist who formally named them.)
Even though they’re classified as carnivores, sloth bears are not meat eaters. They play a pivotal role in sustaining healthy forest ecosystems because the bulk of their diet is insects, like ants and termites—and lots of them. By some estimates, an adult can eat up to 500,000 insects per day.
If you had a myrmecophagous (insect-eating) diet, you would definitely want the adaptations that sloth bears have. Long, curved claws come in handy as you dig through dirt and open up termite mounds. Missing your top two front teeth would allow you to suck and blow air at rotting wood as you search for larvae. Having the ability to close each nostril individually would stop fleeing ants from crawling inside your nose. And of course, you would want two long, floppy lips, which would allow you to suck up tiny prey like the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner.
Outside of cub-rearing, sloth bears like Vicki live solitary lives in the wild. As is the case with many large carnivores, resource competition can lead to harmful encounters with other members of their species when times are tough.
But in zoos and wildlife facilities, sloth bears do not have to resort to physical conflict over who gets to eat at the termite mound. Keepers and researchers in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) community have noticed cohabitating sloth bears are more than willing to share their space peacefully, and will often develop complex, long-lasting relationships with each other. It is a relatively new insight into sloth bear behavior, and it seems to be working out well for the bears already at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Before Vicki arrived in September, the Asia Trail already had two male sloth bears. “The boys”, as the Asia Trail keepers call them fondly, are 9-year-old Niko, who came to the Zoo in 2019 from Germany, and 5-year-old Deemak, who arrived in 2021 from San Diego Zoo. Keepers say they are curious, playful and goofy.