Friday, September 23, 2011

Meanwhile, Back In Sitka...

After almost a year away, Killisnoo says: "Where have you been?"

I'm currently re-visiting my old stomping grounds at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka and it's been a very fulfilling and rewarding experience to observe and interact with the bears again. While Toby, Baloo, and Lucky have gotten much bigger (to the point where I have difficulty telling them apart), Chaik and Killisnoo seem to be their old selves, yet are visibly tired from the very busy summer they've just had. On top of the joy of watching them fish for salmon in their pool, I've also gained some new insights into bear intelligence and behavior, regarding the usage of tools and complex thinking to solve problems.

As related to me by Les (executive director of the Fortress), several weeks ago a whole chicken was hung from the bridge above the pool about two feet higher than the bears could reach. While Chaik and Killisnoo made their best efforts, they were unable to reach the meal. Exasperated, they sat on the shore for five whole minutes, staring at the chicken as if wondering how to get to it. Finally, with no spoken language and no visible communication between them, Chaik stood and began walking around the far end of the pool. Killisnoo stood and quietly followed him. Upon reaching the far side, Chaik rolled a stump end over end into the water until it was standing beneath the chicken. The stump was unsteady where it sat so Killisnoo put his full weight against it and held it steady while Chaik climbed to the top and retrieved the snack.

In the second account, Killisnoo inadvertently discovered how to catch fish in the pool by using the limbs of a dead Christmas tree as an impassable net or as a structure that the fish would seek to take shelter in. After attempting this a couple of times, he learned that the limbs could act as a trap and so he moved more trees into the water. One could almost see the gears turning in his head as he gained a clearer understanding of what he was constructing. Finally, after almost creating a fully functional fish weir, he seemed to lose whatever he was on the verge of grasping and abandoned the project. Still, there is one tree remaining in the water and he does frequently check it for fish.

I'm personally fascinated by these accounts, as they demonstrate a high level of complex thinking and problem solving ability. This, to me, is one of the highest values of captive bears that many opponents to the practice do not see: the opportunity to witness these behaviors, to understand that they are complex and intelligent creatures, and to gain not only insight into how to co-exist with them but to gain the desire to. I think that facilities like Fortress of the Bear are going a long way to help promote that kind of thinking.


  1. Wow, fascinating. This furthur proves that bears are highly capable of learning to habtuate to humans without being a nuisance, and does not need to be "taught" that human=dangerous monsters that threatens their existance (ironically, it's true to some extent though...)

  2. It certainly is true to an extent but I feel that teaching them that we are dangerous is what often leads to aggression towards people and attacks. Not in every situation, obviously, but I think that it is true in some cases. Habituation always gets a bad rap when it's really nothing more than adaptation and can be a good thing in regards to bear/human relations. Nuisance bears are not so much created through that as they are through mistakes that we make such as leaving our garbage out, etc. We need to gain a greater understanding of that and realize that the answer is not about bear management but people management. Thanks for reading!

  3. This is fascinating...I have spent a lot of time around black bears and find them to be safer, better company than a majority of people!

  4. The bears at the Fortress are remarkable. A lady from Anchorage came down two years ago to take a look at the facility. She said she had seen every captive bear in the country and had never seen any as interactive and as well-socialized as these. I don't know if that's due to their individual mentalities over other bears or if it's purely a product of their training, but they are a delight to work with!