Bears are back

Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot enjoyed a belated homecoming this past Thursday when its trio of bears having finally returned after an 18-month absence.

Alaskan brown bears Judy and Sandy, and grizzly Goldie had spent that time in St. Paul’s Como Zoo, after their flood evacuation in the summer of 2011.

Zoo director David Merritt expressed his thanks for the assistance other zoos have given to Minot. “Our bears look great. It is obvious that they were well cared for by the Como Zoo, who originally accepted our bears with the thought that we would be ready to have them back in four to six months,” he said.

Merritt was particularly grateful to Terry Lincoln of Dakota Zoo who, with staff from Roosevelt Park Zoo, drove the stock trailer to and from Minot. “Terry Lincoln, director of the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, has consistently been of great assistance to the Roosevelt Park Zoo over the past two years. In this case he not only allowed us to use his bear crates and stock trailer, he drove round trip to bring them back.” Minot Police, zoo staff, and park maintenance staff were on site to assist in a safe transfer. It was a lengthy affair, taking 16 hours in all.

The bears’ return is exciting for the zoo, with Merritt describing the event as “a shot in the arm for our zoo staff,” who have all been working tirelessly to get the facilities restored and running after the flood.

As zoo curator Brandi Clark explained, “We have brought several animals back to the zoo, but our bears have always had a special place in our hearts. Having them back in Minot and being able to see them every day is really great!”

Roosevelt Park Zoo has maintained an exhibit for bears since the mid-1960s, with sisters Judy and Sandy living there for nearly 13 years. Goldie was added a few years later.

The bears themselves seem happy to be back, energetic despite their seasonal torporific state. Senior keeper Becky Zahn Walcker explained that unlike their cousins the black bear, Alaskan brown and grizzly bears are not true hibernators. Instead they continue as they normally do morning strolls, eating, and playing but at a slower pace than their usual summer schedule. Walcker has been with the Roosevelt Park Zoo for eight years now, and ranks the bear exhibit among their top 10. “The bears are such a huge attraction here. People love to watch them play,” she said.

The bears’ temporary change of venue has yielded some unexpected benefits. While at Como Zoo, staff there continued training them with the assistance of the Como Friends, a nonprofit support society. Walcker was able to fly to St. Paul several days before the transport, to reacquaint herself with the bears and observe and learn some of the new training. “At first they had done it out of pure fun, but then it became a challenge for them,” said Walcker.

Training the bears involves a Pavlovian command/reward system, in which a command is given with a corresponding gesture. If the bear successfully completes the action, a clicker device is used to signal success and a reward is given. There are eight commands the bears have learned so far, including sit, stand, tongue, and paw.” ‘Tongue’ is given when we want the bear to display its tongue or show us the inside of its mouth and teeth,” Walcker explained. The action is used to inspect the state of the bears’ oral health, and is an alternative to anesthetized treatment. “Obviously we would prefer it if the bears are willing participants,” she added as an aside.

As did many of the properties situated along the Souris River, the zoo experienced extensive damage during the flood. “We were entirely wiped out,” Merritt recounted, citing the extensive damage done to the zoo’s facilities. “The good thing about the flood is that we had some warning. The bad thing obviously, besides the damage was that it lasted so long.”

Similar to other renovation and restoration efforts around town, theirs have been hampered by various delays with permits and labor. But the housing facilities and a new administrative building are finally ready to resume service.

There is still plenty left to do, and though the zoo does not have a specific date set for its reopening, Merritt is certain they will be able to admit visitors this year, possibly by early May. “We will be open this summer. In terms of numbers, most of the exhibits will be open. But we have a lot of animals still out, so some exhibits will be closed when we start the 2013 season,” he said.

All of the animals had been safely evacuated in the weeks before the flood, but getting them back will take some time. In addition to the logistical problems involved, once animals have been returned they need to go through a quarantining process of 30 days. While this makes sure the animals are in good health, the measure also helps ensure the health and well-being of other animals and visitors to the zoo. Once the weather warms up enough to comfortably transport them, the giraffes will return, as will the penguins and otters being kept at the Minnesota and Como zoos. There is also the possibility of adding lemurs to Roosevelt Park Zoo’s exhibits.