The Summer of Bears

Well, it’s Labor Day. 

In the Zoo world that really just means more labor. Holidays are nothing when there are animals to feed and so I spent my weekend working as is the norm.

I like Labor Day–the bbqs, the lakes, family and friends–what’s not to love? But I also kind of hate it because I really, REALLY like summer. GIve me the hum of cicadas during a humid, 9 pm sunset any day and I’ll be quite content. 

In keeping with Labor Day tradition, the three day “weekend” inspires me to reflect on the last few months. Really, my summer was rather uneventful. The farthest I travelled was to Columbus, Ohio and I only made it down to the lake one time. But it was a special summer anyway because I got to spend each day of my work week in the company of bears.

I shall forevermore recall the Summer of ‘13 as the summer of bears!

I got to know these bears pretty well and I must say it is hard for me to chose a favorite.

There are the Sun Bears–Miskin and Rimba. Little, round, chunks of bear, these guys are feisty roly polies who look super cute but boast some seriously powerful canines. Miskin is the female and Rimba is the male. These two take turns giving me a good morning kiss with their long, pink tongues when I get to work each day. Usually, they get along, but I will tell you what, there is nothing that gets my heart rate up faster than the sounds of the sun bears growling when they do get into a tussle from time to time. Man, are they LOUD! 

Then there’s Daisy. Oh, Daisy. I love her so much. She is just the sweetest. Daisy is a Sloth Bear and I’ve been working on training her all summer. She is a very smart and a fast learner. We have bonded in our training sessions and can while away a good afternoon just sitting there, considering one another. Daisy loves to vacuum up treats like blueberries and raisins with her super sucker snout. In fact, her favorite enrichment item is a tube filled with these goodies! She is a reliable bear, but very sensitive and boy can she get sassy! Every morning this summer I’d arrive in the bear pits to find Daisy, asleep in her hammock, bottom lip pouting, just snoring away. So, so cute. 

That brings us to The Andeans. Their names are Poncho and Maria. I call Poncho “The Frat Boy” because he is seriously the most laid back dude ever. All he wants to do is lay around, eat, sleep and, well, you know…with Maria. He likes to sleep on his back with all four feet up in the air. He certainly gave me a bit of grief this summer with his unwillingness to get off his big bear butt and go outside! His mate, Maria, is a sharp one. Maria was the first bear born at the Saint Louis Zoo and she is 23 years old. She is almost half Poncho’s size, yet she likes to show him who’s boss! At the end of the summer, Maria struggled with allergies and I really bonded with her during my quest to get her to take her meds each day. She really loves her grapes and honey!

And, finally, Bert. Bert is the big, old Grizzly. He is wise, patient and very reliable. Every morning Bert is always inside, waiting for his breakfast and everyday at 4 pm he is outside waiting for his snack. The big guy weighs in at about 850 pounds and boy can he put down the chow! My favorite enrichment for Bert is perfume. Bert loves perfume and whenever I sprayed it on a rock or a log he would rub his back all over it. He prefers Estee Lauder “Beautiful” because, well, Bert is beautiful. 

Next week I will begin training in a new area, so I must say adieu to my bear friends for the time being. It is fitting, as we close out the Labor Day weekend, that I also wrap up my summer with the bears.

It’s not just the end of summer, though. Tomorrow ends an era, not just for me, but for the entire Zoo! Tomorrow, the demolition of the lower Bear Pits begins and the construction for Polar Bear Point will commence.

This is a seriously historical moment for Zoo nerds, like me. The Bear Pits were one of the very first exhibits at the Saint Louis Zoo. They were built in the 1920s and their naturalistic setting was a groundbreaking first in their time. Ninety years later, though, we know we can do better and so about four years from now all of our bear exhibits will be shiny, new and state of the art! I just can’t wait.

I am honored to have served, briefly, as the keeper of the bears in the original bear area. I worked just as generations of keepers have worked before me–lifting those heavy, steel shift doors and hosing everyday! 

As the sun sets on summer I will say goodbye to late nights, long evenings and those bear pits and move on to other things. 

Only 18-24 months to the completion of the new Polar Bear Point…and only 9 months until next Memorial Day…