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Bears

Asiatic Black Bears (Selenarctos thibetanus)

One of the seven bear species can now be seen at Glasgow Zoopark. Though bears are large cousins of dogs, they mostly take a very varied diet with little meat. Asian Black Bears are much smaller than polar bears - weighing not much more than a heavy human - and are very wide ranging from Iran to Japan in the wild. They forage for nuts and fruit, and are good climbers, and have plenty of opportunity for such activities in their large wooded "foraging enclosure". Here patience (and binoculars!) may be needed to observe them, but will be rewarded by a rare opportunity to watch a wild animal in semi-wild conditions. In winter they often go into a state of lethargy - not strictly hibernation - so please understand if they do not emerge much before the spring from their comfortable indoor accommodation!

Sooty and Blackie Bring Politics to Bear

Of our four bears, two arrived from Dudley Zoo in 1998. Sooty was born in 1985 or 1986 at Dudley Zoo. Together with her friend, 'Blackie', another female, they resolutely fought with the other two females at Dudley, at every opportunity, so had to be kept separated.

We had, here in Glasgow, four female Black Bears rescued from Loch Lomond Bear Park in 1984/5. Most were middle-aged, at least, at that time, having arrived mature in the early 1970s. Two died of old-age-related disorders (severely arthritic spines, for example) over the past five years, which created the room for the Dudley Bears.

Sooty and Blackie arrived here in 1998 and settled in well. To date we have only occasionally mixed them with our original bears, preferring to put one pair in one large enclosure, the other pair in the other, and they seem quite happy with this. This summer, though, we are going to try to integrate the four bears together, as we think this might be more interesting for them and us, once the initial skirmishing is over.

The enclosures (one of which is nearly 1.5 hectares in area and packed with trees and other vegetation) were never designed to be used in the manner we currently use them. They were designed so that the house and top enclosure were in use during the day, when there was plenty of activity with visitors, staff, etc., and consequent interest for the bears. Then, in late afternoon when it became quieter, they would be given access to the larger, planted enclosure, where they could (happily, we hoped) occupy themselves. We hadn't anticipated bear politics of the type we have encountered.

Sooty could be expected to live until she was forty if she was lucky. Any age past twenty-five is good though. She eats almost anything, being an omnivore, though we try to feed a balanced diet using all the extra bits and pieces as enrichment items to be scattered through the undergrowth to keep her occupied.

The Honey Tree

The Honey Tree is a "V-shaped" vertical tree, with two trunks, the top of the right fork has had a space hollowed out allowing a plastic bottle filled with clear honey to be placed. The honey drips through a tube from the plastic bottle.

Designed to encourage the bears to climb and investigate, and also stimulate their sense of smell.

About three times a week (but at irregular intervals) clear honey is put into the plastic bottle at the top of one of the trunks. A secure lid prevents any bear short-circuiting the system by wrenching out bottle and honey in one go. Instead, the honey drips out near the top of the trunk requiring a bear to climb and hang on, using all four legs, in order to get at the honey. The great advantage of this arrangement is that it requires a high energy output by the bears (exercise and effort) for a low calorific return (not too much honey).

In addition, food such as apples are put at various points on the tree, also to encourage climbing, and eggs are occasionally placed in the hollow top of the left fork.

The Bear Necessities

Bears are highly intelligent, exploring animals.

  • In the wild bears forage a great deal. Here we use SCATTER FEEDING - the keepers scatter tasty morsels through the undergrowth to encourage the bears to go exploring.
  • Some of their food is fixed to WOODEN PEGS on the tall platform at the top of the enclosure - bears have to climb to get such food.
  • Food is regularly hidden in a ROCK PILE, and in several narrow pipes, embedded vertically in the ground. The bears use various techniques to extract apples or other food from these, such as spearing them on their claws or scooping them up the edge of the pipes.
  • The top enclosure contains a POOL which the bears clearly enjoy splashing about in.
  • In the valley enclosure, the bears have constructed several NESTS, some on the ground - one is under an upturned tree stump - and some up trees.

Is there Room for Bears in Today's World?

We humans have to decide.
Asian Black Bears are in danger from us in all parts of their range and are now rarely seen in the wild.

In India adult bears are often killed because of attacks on sheep or cattle, or so that their cubs can be trained as performing bears.

In the Himalayas and elsewhere, many bears are killed annually to satisfy Eastern demands for their meat, bile and bones (supposed to be valuable medicines) and so that their paws can be turned into highly expensive soup. (Sometimes US$850 a plate in Japan).

In Japan hundreds of Black bears are killed every year. Partly this is because of the damage the bears do to trees (peeling the bark off), and because they sometimes attack humans. But Black bears may well be extinct in Japan by the end of the 20th century.

Bears are unlikely to survive into tomorrow's world without human protection. Here's how YOU can help them:

  • Support the National Federation of Zoos, who are co-ordinating captive breeding programmes of endangered species.
  • Support conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Bald Bears - A Solution?

For years at Glasgow Zoopark, we have been disheartened by the hair-loss each summer of one of our Asiatic black bears.

This bear, every July and August, lost most of the hair from the shoulders, over her rump and stomach to midway up her hind legs. We have been investigating every possibility: diets, management, ecto-parasites, etc., to no avail. We received an e-mail from a Thailand Bear Reserve concerning a bear with similar "symptoms", asking if we could help. Apparently, bears in this condition have been observed in Canada also, in the wild.

By chance, we think we may have stumbled on the solution.

Every afternoon from 4pm onwards our herd of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs start scratching and rubbing themselves furiously against walls and posts. They are being pestered by midges, a minute and notorious version of the mosquito - the bane of the summer tourism industry in the Scottish Highlands.

This year our bear and a female companion have remained, night and day, in a 1.5 hectare, thickly planted "foraging" enclosure. She has regained nearly all of her fur. We think this is because she is able to alter her location in her enclosure. On "midgy days" she can move to a breezy area, or climb a tree.

With repeated rubbing, skin becomes dermatised, as with our bear. If no ecto-parasites are present at any location on the bear, which is the case, midge attacks of a susceptible individual could, perhaps, cause sufficient irritation as to create this condition.

In previous years this bear and her companion remained in - or near - the dens in the main house. The enclosure was mainly a flattish, grassy, sheltered paddock - ideal now we have become aware of this, for midges.

Award for Bear Enclosure

Brown Bears Historically in Scotland

Bongo bear from Italy

About the Black Bear Enclosure

Himalayan black bear

Conference Proceedings: Bears:Their Status,Conservation & Welfare in Captivity