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Elderly Andean Bear Euthanized at National Zoo

A longtime resident of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, an elderly female Andean bear was euthanized Monday after a decline in her health compromised her quality of life. At 33 years old, Bandit outlived the average Andean bear by nearly a decade. In general, Andean bears live to be 20–25 years old in captivity; not much information is known about the species in the wild. Bandit was also the second-oldest Andean bear in captivity in North America.

At the age of 27, Bandit was diagnosed with spondylosis, a degenerative spinal disease common in geriatric animals. Over the years, she responded well to anti-inflammatory medication that allowed her to maintain considerable mobility. Animal keepers kept close observations on Bandit’s condition and over the past several months, symptoms of stiffness, hind-quarter weakness and a decrease in activity level and agility were evident. Yesterday, keepers noted Bandit’s condition deteriorated significantly, and Zoo veterinarians along with curatorial staff made the decision to euthanize her.

“It’s always difficult to lose an animal in our care, but the Bandit we observed yesterday was not a healthy, thriving bear,” said Dr. Jessica Siegal-Willott, supervisory veterinarian at the Zoo. “Due to the progression of her condition, her symptoms were no longer treatable or reversible.” Bandit was born at the Calgary Zoo in Canada to wild-born parents Jan. 27, 1977. At the age of 3, she moved to the Philadelphia Zoo where, except for a 4-1/2–month breeding loan to the Buffalo Zoo, she lived for the next 11 years. In June 1991, at the age of 14, Bandit came to the National Zoo, where she has been ever since.

Although she was paired with several different males over the years, Bandit never gave birth to a cub. Her valuable genes, however, are well represented within the international Andean bear community. Bandit had six younger siblings survive to adulthood; her two brothers and four sisters have lived throughout the United States and Canada, and as far away as Venezuela and Moscow. 

The markings of Andean bears (generally white, cream or yellowish coloration around the eyes, on the snout and/or down the neck) are unique to each bear. As a cub, Bandit’s markings were much more defined and typical of the species, centering around her eyes. As she aged, however, her facial markings gradually matured so that her entire face was a reddish gold—a natural but rare coloration in the wild, shared by some of her siblings. Her black fur, from ears to tail, also turned gray with age.

“We feel very lucky to have had Bandit as a resident of the National Zoo for more than half of her life,” said Tracey Barnes, Andean bear keeper. “Bandit’s longevity is just another example of her uniqueness and one more quality that made her special and a favorite of visitors and Zoo personnel alike.”

Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and it is estimated that there are only 2,000 left in the wild. They are the only surviving member of the short-faced bear subfamily. As South America’s only bears, and as their name suggests, they live in the Andes mountain range from western Venezuela south to Bolivia, with sightings reported from eastern Panama and extreme northern Argentina.

The Zoo currently has two male and two female Andean bears on exhibit—mother and father and two cubs born this past January. Nikki, the father, will be 19 years old on Christmas Day and mother Billie Jean is almost 5. Due to renovation construction in the Beaver Valley area, the Andean bear exhibit is only accessible to visitors on the weekends. Andean bears are bred at the National Zoo as part of Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan.