Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bear Behavior Observations

After six years, I'm back at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska and will be here at least through the summer. Coming back has taken some adjustment, considering the amount of time I've spent with wild bears in Montana over the past few years. For awhile, seeing them in captivity again didn't have the same impact as encountering one on a trail, but being able to closely observe and interact with them has won me over and this time around I feel more suited to be their keeper than I did years ago just because of the vast knowledge of bears I've compiled since then and how much more at ease I feel around them as a result. That's a good thing because this time I've really got my work cut out for me: eight bears are currently housed at the facility, five brown bears and three black bears.

The five brown bears I'm very familiar with. My old buddies Chaik and Killisnoo (Killisnoo pictured above) are still here, along with Baloo, Lucky, and Toby, the three cubs who were breaking into the facility on a nightly basis with their mother. The trio is much bigger now, with Baloo beating out Chaik as the largest, and now most dominant, bear.

                                          Baloo regarding his reflection.

The three black bears are Bandit, Smokey, and Tuliaan, a native Tlingit word that means "gentle". Smokey and Tuliaan were siblings orphaned in Seward and Bandit was a lone cub living in a tree in Juneau. All three are as passive and gentle with the keepers as their brown bear cousins and are impossible not to fall in love with from the first moment of interaction.

                                          Bandit (lower), Smokey (left), and Tuliaan,


I was skeptical if any of the bears would remember who I was after so many years, but Fortress director Les Kinnear was adamant that they would and it seems he was right. My first meeting with Chaik and Killisnoo, I held my hand up for them to smell and they almost instantly reacted with recognition, licking me and taking treats from my fingers.

                                          Feeding carrots to Chaik and Killisnoo.

Toby, Baloo, and Lucky took a bit longer to get used to my presence since one of our interns primarily worked with them last time, but they've adjusted to me extremely well, as have the black bears. I feel like I know them and I get the sense they feel as comfortable with me.

Daily observations are interesting. While the black bears mostly frolic and play, the social dynamics of the brown bears, while mostly cordial, are always changing. Two or three years ago, Les constructed a breezeway connecting both habitats so the brown bears could mingle and interact with one another. While Chaik and Killisnoo are both extremely passive, Toby, Baloo, and Lucky spent more time in the wild and can be a little more pushy. Baloo has already established himself as the bear in charge while Toby has begun courting Chaik. Lucky mostly stays on the sidelines and poor Killisnoo gets the brunt of everyone's bad side. 

When Chaik and Killisnoo were rescued as cubs in 2007, Killisnoo was in bad health and didn't fully develop so he's considered something of an outcast by the wilder bears, particularly Toby, who would find him unworthy as a suitor in the wild and is instinctively compelled to push him away, so she usually dumps all her aggression on Killisnoo and keeps him trapped inside his den. During the more intense scuffles, Chaik usually comes to Killisnoo's aid, often landing him in the doghouse with Toby. It's wonderful to see Chaik so protective because when he and Killisnoo were the only residents six years ago, Chaik was often pushy and rough with Killisnoo, as older brothers often are with younger brothers, so seeing Chaik's devotion to him now when he's outnumbered is heartwarming.

Of course, Baloo and Lucky feel equally protective of their sister so they sometimes take her lead and gang up on Killisnoo or try to block Chaik from rushing to his brother's defense, leading to some pretty hair-raising bellowing matches. Fortunately, Killisnoo has started standing up to Toby and has backed her down a few times. While none of these confrontations have been really serious, Killisnoo did suffer a bite to the back of his knee and a bruised tendon so we've separated the two sets of bears for now to give Killisnoo time to recuperate stress-free (The photo at the top was taken while sitting and talking to Killisnoo during his recuperation in the den). Now Toby sulks and picks on her brothers because she can't snuggle up with Chaik. 

And the soap opera continues...

                                          Lucky balancing on a pipe while Killisnoo watches and Baloo sleeps.