Nature or Nurture?

Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

Innate vs Learned Behaviors

In any discussion of animal behavior arises the question of nature or nurture. Some behaviors are built into an animal’s instincts – they never need to learn them, they just come naturally. Instinctual, or innate behavior, is defined as “behaviors that occur naturally in all members of a species whenever they are exposed to a certain stimulus.”

Other behaviors have to be learned for an animal to exhibit them (or at least, exhibit them successfully) – they’ll usually be taught these by their mothers. Learned behavior is defined as a behavior which “an organism develops as a result of experience.”

For example, cheetahs do not have to be taught how to hiss, it is an instinctual behavior. On the other hand, while bears are often known for their fishing ability, this is actual something their mother needs to teach them.

So now let’s put you to the test… How well are you able to tell which behaviors are instinctual and which are learned?

Do bears learn to hibernate or are they born knowing how?

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Russel, an Alaskan Coastal brown bear, snuggled up during hibernation – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: It’s a learned behavior!

For a bear to be able to go through hibernation, they have to be taught by their mothers. Bears in the wild receive cues from the environment such as the changing of light, temperature and food availability to help signal the time to hibernate. If all the bears needed were the cues from the environment, then all bears in captivity would be able to hibernate, but that’s not the case. Because hibernation, or torpor, is learned, captive bears are often unable to hibernate because they were orphaned as cubs; they didn’t get to learn how to hibernate from their moms.  Our brown bear boys Mak and Oso are a great example of two cubs who weren’t able to learn how to hibernate before becoming orphaned. Fortunately for them, our brown bear girls, Claire and Russel, were able to learn before being orphaned and they have been able to help show Mak and Oso how it is done… and it only took three winters.

Are lions born hunters or do they have to learn to hunt?

Wildlife Safari's Lion pride playing outside - photo courtesy of Cori

Wildlife Safari’s Lion pride playing outside – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: Lions have to learn to hunt!

Lions hit maturity at the age of two and from birth to the age of two, cubs are learning all they need to know to survive. They are born with the instinct to pounce but the actual act of killing and eating of prey is learned from the pride. We are often asked if we give live prey to our captive lions. The answer is no for a couple of reasons

  • It’s not much fun for the prey animal- we’re all animal lovers here and we never want to see an animal stressed.
  • The lions were not taught what to do with the live prey – they may never get to eat if they had to catch it!

Although it seems natural for them, if we put a live animal in with the lions they would pounce and play with it like a toy and because they are large animals, they may actually kill the prey. That being said, there is no guarantee of what would happen with the introduction of live prey because our lions weren’t taught to kill and then consume.

Last question!

Do cheetahs have to learn to to run?

One of Wildlife Safaris ambassador cheetahs out on a walk - photo courtesy of Cori

One of Wildlife Safaris ambassador cheetahs out on a walk – photo courtesy of Cori Pearson

Answer: It’s instinctual!

Cheetah’s, just like humans and many other animals, are born with the instinct to sleep, to walk, and to run. They don’t need to learn this from a parent. An orphaned cheetah in the wild, or a human raised cheetah cub in captivity will automatically do these things. At Wildlife Safari we have our very own hand-raised cheetah ambassadors: Pancake, Khayam, and Mchumba. We love taking them for walks!

Enrichment – Making Life Fun!

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores

The primary job of keepers at Wildlife Safari is to ensure that all of our animals are happy and healthy. This requires a little extra effort on the part of the keepers. The key is to give the animals new things to interact with every single day. The public helps with this because every car that comes through the drive through gives the animals something new to look at and to smell. The animals can interact with the cars, or not, as they choose. They can run away, they can hide, they can passively watch the car pass, or they can investigate.

Even tigers like to sit in boxes. Photo courtesy of Mikaely Riley.

Even tigers like to sit in boxes. Photo courtesy of Mikaely Riley.

For animals that are in smaller spaces, keepers also provide daily enrichment, something to make the animal think “What is that?!” Enrichment comes in a huge variety of forms and allows keepers to show off their creative sides. It is important for enrichment to excite one of the senses, whether it be sight, touch, taste, sound, or smell. The best forms of enrichment cover multiple senses at once and make the animal think.

Brown Bears playing with a firehose ball. Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox.

Brown Bears playing with a firehose ball. Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox.

Tactile Enrichment

This may be the simplest form of enrichment because it is just giving the animal something to play with or touch. Each day, the lions and tigers get a variety of toys; both in their yards, where they spend the day, and in their huts, where they spend the nights. Generally, there is at least one toy in every room of a hut and those toys get moved around or swapped out with other toys every day. All of the animals have their favorite toys. The tigers love their big blue barrels. They chew on them, roll them around, and push them over.

If you throw a ball for Pancake, the cheetah, she will usually chase it and bat it around. Other tactile enrichment can be boxes, pumpkins, shredded newspaper, paper chains, and paper-mache. Really, the sky is the limit. But we do have to be careful of one thing – many of our animals like to chew their toys, so we have to make sure that there is nothing that could harm them if they were to eat it.

One of our male lions playing tug-o-war

One of our male lions playing tug-o-war

Sight enrichment

Sight enrichment involves giving the animal something new to see. Sometimes animals don’t play with the toys that they are given, sometimes they just look at them. But that is also a form of enrichment. Sight enrichment can also involve moving an animal to a new enclosure. Here, the animal has new neighbors to look at and sniff (doubling as scent enrichment) and a new area to explore. In the winter, when the brown bears are hibernating, we have the unique opportunity to bring cheetahs out into the bear enclosure. We simply close the gates and allow them to roam freely within the drive through bear enclosure. It gives them a little extra space to run around in, if they choose, but they can also look at animals they don’t get to see every day. It is like a field trip for them.

Cheetahs out on "Cheetah Watch" where they can explore cheetah Drive thru before the park opens

Cheetahs out on “Cheetah Watch” where they can explore cheetah Drive thru before the park opens – Photo courtesy of Sheila Swanson

Scent Enrichment

Scent enrichment can involve anything from spraying perfume on toys or trees to moving animals into different enclosures. Most of our animals mark trees or toys in their enclosure, so when a new animal is moved in or a toy is moved out and given to another animal, there is something new to smell.

We can also do things like putting elephant scat in with the carnivores. This enrichment is a favorite of the tiger girls, Riya and Kemala. They love to roll around in it and to play with it. But as always, safety first! In order to keep our animals safe and healthy, we make sure to freeze the scat for a couple of days to make sure there are no microbes in it that could make the tigers sick. Freezing the scat also adds to the enrichment, because the tigers have to work to break up the large scat into smaller pieces to play with!

Perfumes and spices are also usually a hit with the animals. We can put these out in the yards, in their huts, or on their toys.

One of our lions playing with a paper-mache ghost around Halloween. Photo courtesy of Caroline Harris.

One of our lions playing with a paper-mache ghost around Halloween. Photo courtesy of Caroline Harris.

Taste Enrichment

This form of enrichment is used for animals all across the park, from carnivores to giraffes, to emus. This form of enrichment includes giving the animal some type of food that they don’t get every day, or perhaps an extra snack. Examples of taste enrichment include tossing apples or lettuce to hoof stock in the drive through, hanging browse for the giraffes, and pouring protein drinks on toys for the lions and tigers. An important thing to remember here is that this enrichment is in addition to, not in replace of, their regular diets. Because many of our animals are highly food-motivated, we can also exercise their minds and make them work to get their food, as they would in the wild. We can put food into puzzle feeders or hang it from something. This requires the animal to think about how to get to the food. For example, we will put bear food into barrels. The barrels have holes that are big enough for the bears to reach and grab a snack, but it requires that the bear reach in and work for that food.

Bandit the American Badger enjoying a strawberry - his favorite!

Bandit the American Badger enjoying a strawberry – his favorite!

Sound enrichment

Sound enrichment is often easy to overlook, but is equally as important as other forms of enrichment. One of the simplest forms of sound enrichment is to play music. It could also be something like putting crinkly newspaper in a hut. We can also use toys for sound enrichment. The lions have a rattle, that was made by putting rocks in an enclosed PVC pipe. We recently gave the cheetah cubs a toy that squeaked. They loved it!

At Wildlife Safari, we keep an enrichment calendar to help us keep track of the forms of enrichment we have done recently. It helps to ensure that we are covering every sense and that we are providing the animals with unique forms of enrichment. Think that you have a great idea for animal enrichment? Tell us about it in the comments! We are always looking for new, creative enrichment ideas!

One of our young cheetahs running off with a new toy. Photo courtesy of Katie Low.

One of our young cheetahs running off with a new toy. Photo courtesy of Katie Low.

Tiger Times

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Riya and Kemala are 4 year old sisters, that came to us 2 years ago from Texas. Sumatran tigers weigh in at about 200 lbs and are the smallest of the 5 subspecies, with Siberian tigers being the largest at 700 lbs. Tigers can live into their teens in captivity, but usually only reach 10 or so in the wild if they are lucky. Sumatran tigers have the most stripes and pigmentation of all subspecies and the largest canines of all big cats.

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Kemala, one of out Sumatran tigers – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Even though tigers are muscular and powerfully built, they can move silently because they are able to fully retract their claws. They aren’t built for speed, like a cheetah, so they must stalk prey closely until they can pounce and knock it down without having to pursue. Tigers hunt by stalking as close as possible and utilizing their sight and hearing. They leap onto their prey and strangle it with a bite to the throat or back of the neck. A carcass is often dragged off and hidden for future meals. They are powerful enough to take down prey twice their size. Tigers are only successful with 5% of their prey. Unlike most cats, tigers are very water oriented. They will chase prey into the water to take advantage of their superior swimming ability.

Riya - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Riya – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, each tiger’s striping is unique. They are nocturnal and have much better night vision than humans. The backs of their ears have white spots that mimic eyes to warn other animals even if they are looking from behind the tiger. Tigers are apex predators in their ecosystem, keeping prey species in check to release plant species from herbivore stresses. Because of the unpredictability of their hunts, tigers tend to gorge whenever they can because they don’t know when their next meal will be.

Relaxing in her hut - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Relaxing in her hut – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Tigers are solitary except when mating or rearing cubs. They gestate for 3.5 months and have litters of 3-4 cubs. Cubs are born blind and less than 2 lbs, but they are able to kill before their first birthday. They begin hunting at 6 months, but are dependent on mom until they’re 18 months years old. They mature at about 4 years old but half of all cubs don’t survive more than two years. Their major threats are predators, but as they mature, injury during a hunt is also a likely reason for cub mortality.

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The beautiful Kemala checking out her enclosure – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Less than 350 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, making them critically endangered. Sumatra is the only place where tigers live alongside rhinos, elephants, and orangutans. Human-tiger conflict and fear are the driving factors behind their decline. All 5 subspecies of tigers are endangered, with poaching and traditional medicine being the main culprit. Habitat destruction and fragmentation also contribute to their decline. Tigers need an undisturbed habitat to thrive and as human populations expand, haphazard developments put huge pressures on their habitat from grazing cattle and degrading forests.

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Riya keenly awaits her snacks – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

At Wildlife Safari, we are excited to start renovations on our tiger exhibits. Our facility will be able to help save tigers by initiating a tiger breeding program and having our very first tiger cubs! With so few left in the wild, breeding our Sumatran tigers is more important than ever before. Come meet Riya and Kemala on our tiger encounter and you’ll be helping to protect tigers in the wild.

Training for Healthy Bodies and Minds

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

People tend to think that training involves ridding an animal of its natural instincts in order to tame it. In fact, our training is just the opposite. Animal training at Wildlife Safari is not used for the sole purpose of public entertainment. Our training actually reinforces natural behaviors and is used to evaluate and maintain the health of our animals.

Daily observations of our animals allow us to assess their health status. It is generally easy to tell if an animal is not feeling 100%, but it is not as easy to identify the source of the problem. Some parts of the animal’s body are difficult to see with just passive observation. For example, it is hard to see inside of a bear’s mouth, or to inspect a lion’s paw pads. This is where training becomes extremely valuable.

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A keeper training one of our female lions

Keepers can check for injuries on the bellies of lions during training sessions.

We can ask for a variety of behaviors that allow us to see parts of the animal’s body that are usually difficult to evaluate, such as the animal’s mouth, paw pads, and belly. For example, the lions and tigers are trained to put their paws up on the fence, allowing keepers to inspect the paw pads for any sign of injury or infection. Our ambassador cheetahs can also show us their paw pads, but the behavior is more similar to asking a dog to shake.”

One of our Ambassador cheetahs gives his paw to a keeper

One of our Ambassador cheetahs gives his paw to a keeper

With the cheetahs we can both look at and feel their pads to check for scrapes or other damage. The specific behavior we ask for varies slightly depending on the animal species, but the purpose is the same.

The lions, tigers, bears, and cheetahs are also trained to show off their bellies. The lions and tigers will put both paws on the fence, either from a sitting or standing position. The bears will stand on their hind legs. The cheetahs will lay on their sides in the ‘flop’ position, a very natural pose for them. The bears and hippos are also trained to open their mouths (to read more about hippo training, check out Healthy Happy Hippos). We actually discovered that one of our brown bears needed a root canal because he was trained to show us his teeth.

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Keeper Melissa Fox during a Brown Bear training session. Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox.

Other behaviors that we ask for are useful for medical procedures such as drawing blood or putting an animal under anesthesia. Sometimes our animals do get sick and we need to run tests on them, but we want to minimize the stress that this puts on them. To do this, we work with them to simulate medical procedures. For example, we are currently working with our lions to approach the fence and allow keepers to gently poke their thigh. This imitates the feeling of a needle. If we ever had to put the lion under anesthesia, we could inject the anesthetics by hand. They would approach the fence as they usually would, get poked, and that time they would happen to fall asleep. This limits stress because the process is very familiar to them. We are also working on blood draw training with many of our big cats. For a test as simple as a blood draw, we want to limit stress and avoid putting the animal under anesthesia.

With our ambassador cheetahs we can simply shave a small patch at the base of their tail and draw blood from there. It takes a little bit of time for them to get used to us touching their tail. But, unlike our ambassador cheetahs, most of our carnivores were not hand-raised and the process is therefore more difficult.

Pancake knows to go sit on her board when keepers ask her to "station"

Pancake knows to go sit on her board when keepers ask her to “station”

We always work protected contact with our lions, tigers, and bears. This means that there is always a fence between us and them. Keepers cannot simply waltz into the tiger enclosure to draw blood. Because of this, we are training the tigers to approach the fence and allow us to gently pull their tails through the fence so that we can draw blood from their tails while they are still awake. For the bears, we actually draw blood from the arm, but the goal is the same. This training does not happen overnight. There is a process and each animal is in a different stage of the process.

Training these behaviors is just the first step. After the animal has learned the behavior, it is imperative that the behavior is maintained. We reinforce behaviors with an audible click and a food reward. The animals are trained to hold a behavior until they hear a click. Then they get a bite-size snack as a reward for doing the behavior correctly. The clicker is an important tool in training because it allows keepers to stay consistent. If we were to reinforce behaviors with a verbal cue, such as saying “good”, the animals might get confused because each keeper has a different voice and tone. Clickers produce an identical sound, so all keepers are giving the exact same cues to prevent confusion.

Come check out our animal encounters to see training in action!

 

Lion Pride

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Wildlife Safari’s lions have a peculiar backstory. While our adult females were raised in a zoo pride, our adult males have had a bit of a journey to get to us. Their parents were gifted to the sheik of Qatar as cubs. Unfortunately, they bred too young and the female died in labor. Seeing that they needed special care by people with knowledge of their dietary and health needs (let alone the facilities to house them – lions make terrible house guests!), he gave them to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and they were eventually placed here at Wildlife Safari. Their genes are invaluable because they are the first in their line to breed in captivity – a rarity since we never remove animals from the wild for captive breeding. Our boys were paired with Mtai and Serafina, our two adult females. Since the girls came to us from a mother raised pride setting, they understand natural pride dynamics.

Sisters Serafina and Mtai

Sisters Serafina and Mtai – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are unique in that they are the only cats that live in a social group. All other cats are solitary. In a pride, there is typically one dominant breeding male lion. But since Tsavo and Enzi didn’t understand this, Mtai is most often the dominant lion in our unique pride. We are fortunate that all four of our adult lions have bred. They paired off nicely with Mtai and Tsavo having a litter of two, Arnold and Sharptooth, while Serafina and Enzi had a litter of four, Upepo, Dunia, Moto, and Maji. Our adults are all 4 years old and our cubs are just approaching their 2nd birthday.

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Play time for the cubs – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions in captivity can live up to 20 years old, but they only reach about 10 in the wild. Males especially live shorter lives because of their aggression and hierarchy. In a pride setting, there’s one dominant breeding male and supporting non-breeding males. The females of the pride are all related, which is thought to help with hunting. Females are responsible for feeding the pride.

Lions are the 2nd largest cat, Siberian tigers are the first. Male lions can weigh up to 550 lbs and females up to 350 lbs. Males have a mane that protects their jugular when they are fighting. Since they will aim for the throat in a fight, it helps to have a thick matt of hair to shield them.  The dark coloration in their mane is directly correlated to their levels of testosterone. More testosterone means a darker mane which attracts more females and warns other males of their “toughness”.

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Adult males Tsavo and Enzi soak up the sunshine – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are very vocal animals, especially when there is food present. Because they live in such a social setting, their grumbles and growls are a way of telling each other that “no, this is mine”. Lion’s can’t really make any of the noises that we associate with being a “happy cat”, like purring and meowing.

In a pride, it’s the female’s job to hunt and provide food. They tend to stalk prey up to 100 ft and then sprint to catch them, usually tackling and killing with a suffocating bite to the neck. Females are built more slender and agile for stalking and hunting while males are broad and muscular for defending the pride against competing males. Because of the unpredictability of hunts, they tend to gorge whenever they can because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Lions can engorge themselves up to 60 lbs of meat at a time. At Wildlife Safari, we break up that amount into more manageable portions along with two fast days to allow their gut bacteria to balance out.

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Curious cubs – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are nocturnal and sleep up to 19 hours a day. They can breed year round and females start cycling when they are 18 months to 2 years old. However, like many species, this cycling starts before their bodies are fully grown, so  it is unsafe for them to breed for a while. It is very difficult to tell when a female is pregnant without doing an ultrasound or an x-ray.

Lions are altruistic, meaning females in a pride may take care of cubs that aren’t hers, they also tend to sync their cycle and give birth at the same time. So females are usually all lactating at the same time and can nurse all the cubs in the pride.

All lions are born with spots called “rosettes” that fade as they grow older. These are not true spots, like those in cheetahs and tigers. So if you were to shave a cub, the spots would not grow back. Whereas if you shaved a cheetah or tiger, their patterns would still show on their skin. Female cubs stay within the pride for the rest of their lives while male cubs are usually kicked out by the dominant male by the time they are 2. They then form a “bachelor band” until they are large enough to take over another pride.

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The young boys, Arnold and Upepo, lounging around – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because they are declining alarmingly in the areas between protected National Parks. As human population expands and causes overgrazing and prey decline, lions will turn to livestock as a food source. This puts them in conflict with farmers, who may set traps in an attempt to keep their livestock safe. Although lions reproduce relatively quickly, the killing outstrips the lions’ ability to replenish their numbers.

Our lions are ambassadors for their species that help teach the public about lion conservation and human conflict with wildlife. If you’d like to meet our lion pride up close, we have private encounters every day. Although lions are able to tolerate high temperatures, our cubs actually love the cool Oregon winter weather. Come watch them play!

Bear-y Interesting….

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

During the warmer parts of the year you will see our two Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear girls, Russell and Claire, and our two Grizzly Bear boys, Mak and Oso, in our Brown Bear drive through area.

Surprisingly, the biggest distinction between brown and black bears isn’t the color of their fur, as they can both range from light brown to black in color, but rather their affinity for either climbing or digging. Brown bears are great diggers and can dig a hole the size of a small car in about 2 days. They have a huge muscle on their back and long front claws which help them dig and forage underground. Black bears are great climbers and are often found in trees. They have larger hips and shorter, curved claws to help them climb.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Bears live to be around 30 years old in the wild and in captivity. For their weight, it is amazing that they can run up to 30 mph. They can outrun a horse, out swim an Olympian, kill a cow with one blow, and drag a full grown elk uphill. This is the reason why we have “protected contact” with our bears, meaning there is always a barrier between us and them. Even if our bears just wanted to give us a hug, it would not turn out well for us.

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Black Bear – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

They have an amazing sense of smell. Bears can detect odors 6 inches underground through solid dirt, normal odors 3 miles away, and strong rancid odors 15-20 miles away.

Bears are omnivorous scavengers so they’ll pretty much eat anything they can find. Our bears all have their favorite foods, just like we do; Mak and Oso love their produce while Russell and Claire love their meat. A human eats about 2,000 calories a day while a bear can eat over 15,000 calories in a day. Their main sources of protein in the wild are fish and insects. However, fishing is a learned behavior that has to be taught. Mak and Oso are 11 years old and have been with us most of their live, and it wasn’t until last summer that Mak caught his first fish from their pond – he was as surprised as we were! Bears are social learners and learn by watching other bears.

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Photo Courtesy of Mandy Ho

We train our bears by capturing their natural behaviors. This not only helps stimulate the bears mentally but also helps us perform stress-free health checks on them. For instance, our bears are trained to show us their teeth and paws so we can check their oral health and paw pads for any injuries. We exercise positive reinforcement training, meaning we reward our animals when they do well, and ignore it if they do not. We never say ‘no’ or give out punishment when they do something wrong. We also always ask our animals to come do something, we never force them. Usually, a tasty snack is motivation enough for our animals to come train with us.

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Donna, one of Wildlife Safari’s resident Black Bears – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Bears are not very vocal animals. In the wild, you’ll never see a bear stand up on its hind legs and roar like in the movies. They actually only take that stance when they are trying to pinpoint a smell. Bears are very wobbly on their hind legs and it exposes their stomach to potential attacks. If they really wanted to scare you, they’d plant themselves firmly on all fours. Fortunately, bears in the wild like to stay away from humans and will run off if they see/smell/hear you coming. This means you will likely never come across a bear unless it was so engrossed in something that it didn’t mind you approaching.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

There are 8 types of bears: American black bear, Asian black bear, brown bear, giant panda, sloth bear, sun bear, polar bear, and spectacled bear (also called Andean bear). There are about 16 recognized subspecies of brown bears and their size differs by region with the Yukon grizzly around 400 pounds and Kodiak brown bear up to 1500 pounds.

Hibernation

Here at Wildlife Safari we are fortunate to be able to hibernate all our bears. Hibernation is not an instinctual behavior but rather a learned one, like fishing. Our girls came to us knowing the basics of hibernation, so when our boys came to us they learned from the girls over a 3 year period. They each get bales of hay to bed down for the duration of their sleep, from November to late February. During this period, our girls have to be separated because Russell is a bed hog. However, our boys stay together and will actually cuddle for the duration of their sleep.

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Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear, Russell – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Daylight, temperature, and food availability are all cues for hibernation. When there’s less sunlight, it gets colder and food gets scarce, the bears prepare for hibernation. Here at Wildlife Safari, we can control their hibernation to some degree. Beginning in early October, we start giving them foods they don’t particularly like: broccoli, brussell sprouts, etc. This mimics the decrease in food availability in the wild and is their final cue to settle down to hibernate. Essentially, they decide they would rather go to sleep than eat another brussell sprout! During hibernation, they have a slowed metabolism, heart rate, and respiration. They lose 15% of their body weight and this is also the time when any lingering injuries will heal.

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Grizzly Bears, Mak and Oso – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Ninety-five percent of female bears give birth during hibernation, usually in early January. Bears will mate during breeding season but fertilized eggs aren’t implanted in the uterus until the fall when she is ready to hibernate. This is an important process; if she doesn’t gain enough weight to carry her through winter, the embryo will not implant and is reabsorbed by the body. Cubs are born blind, hairless, toothless, and weigh less than 1 lb. They stay with mom until they’re 2 years old, are sexually mature at about 5 years, but continue growing until about 10 years.

Though we use the term “hibernation” when referring to this process for bears, they are not true hibernators. This process is actually referred to as torpor or carnivore lethargy. Like true hibernators, they do not eat, urinate, or defecate during their hibernation. But unlike true hibernators, their metabolism and body temperatures do not drop as low. If you were to wake a true hibernator they would not survive because their body wouldn’t be able to bring their metabolism and temperature up quickly enough. Bears, however, will re-adjust their position to stay comfy, and may even raise their heads to check if they hear a noise, then fall back to sleep just fine.

Conservation

Despite their conservation status of “least concern”, their numbers in the wild are doing relatively well so most facilities do not breed brown or black bears. Their main threat is habitat loss and climate change. Their natural habitats are being reduced by human expansion into their territories and climate change threatens their survival by interrupting their hibernation – if it’s too warm they won’t want to settle down to sleep and will therefore lose the chance to shed excess weight and heal their wounds fully. When it comes to human conflict, wild bears typically have a 3 strike policy, meaning if a bear comes into contact with humans more than 3 times, they must be relocated into a facility or put down.

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Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

The bears that find a new home, like Mak, Oso, Russell and Claire, get to live happy lives with people looking after them. If you’d like to come and meet our bears, we actually have encounters through the winter. You can come see our sleepy ones in a ‘hibernating bear’ encounter now being offered daily!

Palm Oil – a little known, BIG threat to tigers

Carnivores, Uncategorized

Palm oil is found in a huge number of products found in your local stores.  Although most people are unaware of its use as an ingredient, it is a serious conservation issue, especially since the majority of palm oil is non-sustainable.  This means that most of this palm oil is not coming from farms but from forests.  These forests are in places like Sumatra and India, important areas for tiger populations.

Sumatran Tiger sisters, Riya and Kemala

Sumatran Tiger sisters, Riya and Kemala

Tiger populations are dangerously low worldwide and are continuing to decline.  There are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than there are left in the wild.

Wildlife Safari is home to two tigers, Riya and Kemala.  These sisters are four year old Sumatran tigers, the smallest subspecies.  There are only around 300 individuals of this sub species left on earth and only six sub species of tigers left in the world.  The rate of loss of this species is a serious concern, and palm oil harvesting is exacerbating the situation.

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Riya having a rest after her training session

People have been attempting to mass-produce this palm oil by clear-cutting forests – decreasing animal’s habitats so fast that it is driving many species to extinction.

However, there is a sustainable way to produce palm oil that does not involve clear cutting forests, so it is important to do your research on what kind is in the products you use in your home. While this sustainable option is slowly increasing in populations, only about 10% of palm oil containing products currently use sustainable palm oil.

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You can help forests from becoming clear-cut by choosing products that use sustainable palm oil – if that is what people are demanding, then companies will need to change their practices in order to meet their consumer’s preferences.  There are free apps available that tell you which products are sustainable versus non-sustainable – check out which one is right for you!

Some products have also added a symbol on their packaging that lets consumers know that they can feel good about their sustainable choice.

If we can make the change to sustainably sourced palm oil we can help wild tigers to keep their homes. That would help keep tigers just like Riya and Kemala safe and happy!

No kisses from these kitties!

Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

If you have pet cats at home, you’ll be familiar with their rough tongues. While most animals have smooth tongues, cats actually have barbs on theirs and the bigger the cat, the bigger those barbs. Lions, tigers and cheetahs have large barbs designed to help them tear meat and hide of their prey while they eat.

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Tongue barbs on one of our lions – photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

These are so effective that a lion could draw blood from skin in just a few licks! These barbs can also help them keep clean, assisting in removal of dirt when they groom themselves.

Russell and Claire

Carnivores, Uncategorized

Russell and Claire are Alaskan Coastal Brown bears. They make up half of Wildlife Safari’s population of brown bears, and at 27 and 28 years old they are the old ladies of the group. Bears are one of few species that has a similar lifespan in captivity and in the wild – into their 30s. So the girl’s are getting close to the upper end on that life expectancy, but are still healthy, strong, and active.

Russel and Claire

Russell and Claire – Photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Like most of the brown bears in captivity in the US, they were orphaned at a young age. They had, however, been through at least one winter with their mothers – long enough for them to easily slip into the hibernation routine. This is important, since it is something they learn, it isn’t built in to their instincts – which means most orphaned bears in captivity do not hibernate. This means they go without that healthy time to heal wounds and lose up to 14 percent of their body weight – leaving them vulnerable to obesity and related diseases. This is why Russell and Claire are so healthy – they hibernate for four months a year!

Russel relaxing after a swim

Russel relaxing after a swim – Photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

The girls have very distinct personalities: Claire loves to sleep and is very into finding all kinds of weird and wonderful positions to sleep in for maximum comfort. Russell, on the other hand, loves to be out and exploring. She is also bold and confident – and has no issues nudging Claire into joining her for adventures.

These two LOVE their meat, as well as melons and pineapple – though they get lots of variety with every meal. As omnivores they would eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as they foraged, as well as any meat or easy prey they would come across.

Russel - photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

Russel – photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

Claire and Russel always brighten their keepers’ days, and we hope they brighten yours too!

Extreme Makeover – Carnivore Edition

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

Here at the Wildlife Safari, we are constantly working to enrich the lives of the animals under our care. Enrichment comes in many different forms, from spraying perfume on enclosure trees for scent enrichment to behavioral training, puzzle toys and climbing structures. Here is a look at some of the exciting new enclosure enrichment brought to you by the Carnivore Department of the Wildlife Safari.

 

Just Lion’ Around

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If you drive through the lion loop nowadays, you may see a lion or two lounging on their new favorite enclosure structure. This two tiered hammock, perfect for midday naps and relaxing, was built and designed by carnivore keepers Taylor and Jordan. While the first hammock tier is already complete and ready for lion enjoyment, the second tier is still in construction and will be added soon. Lions love their rest and sleep about 20 hours a day in the wild. Stop by the lion loop, near the beginning of our drive-through safari, and observe these sweet snoozers.

The hammock in the lion enclosure - newly renovated

The hammock in the lion enclosure – newly renovated

 

Bearobics

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American black bears survive in the wild by utilizing their hooked, non-retractable claws for tree climbing, reaching impressive heights with remarkable speed. Here in the carnivore department of the Wildlife Safari, we are very excited to have a new climbing structure for our oldest black bear, Donna. The structure, built by the dedicated maintenance staff of the Safari, took two weeks to complete, stands 14 feet high, and consists of over a dozen logs. Not only is the structure designed to help Donna practice those natural climbing abilities, it also provides another area for keepers to spread food enrichment that will be tricky and exciting for Donna to find. Keep climbing Donna!

 

New black bear climbing structure

New black bear climbing structure

 

Run Cheetah, Run!

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Cheetahs are the fastest land animal and can run rates of 70 miles per hour in pursuit of prey. Although their bodies are perfectly adapted for sprinting, it still takes time and practice to build up the muscle mass and technique for reaching these top speeds.

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Here at the Wildlife Safari, we are hoping to increase our cheetahs’ speeds through the introduction of a lure pulley system. The system works by attaching a large portion of meat onto a wire-pulley system that rapidly pulls the tempting treat across the ground over a 300 foot distance.

Cheetah chasing the bait on a lure

Cheetah chasing the bait on a lure

 

Cheetahs will chase the bait from one side of the pulley to the other, gradually developing their running skill to more closely mirror that of their wild cousins. Construction of the lure system is already underway, and the flat land that will serve as the running track can be seen to the right of the road near the exit of the Cheetah drive-through loop.

Treasured Tigers 

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Sumatran Tigers are the rarest subspecies of tiger, with only approximately 400 left in the world. With populations of these beautiful creatures shrinking, breeding the remaining Sumatran Tigers is essential to subspecies survival. Here at the Wildlife Safari, we are lucky to have two Sumatran sisters, Riya and Kemala. The Wildlife Safari, in collaboration with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP), is hoping to begin a Sumatran Tiger breeding program soon when a male Sumatran Tiger is available. More tigers means more space.

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Fundraising from the Ladies Auxiliary of Wildlife Safari’s (LAWS) 20th annual auction night this year will go toward a major enclosure upgrade for our girls and any future Safari tigers. In years passed, LAWS events have raised money to create major Safari projects such as the new veterinary clinic and elephant watering hole. This year, the auction was named, “Hold that Tiger” with an old Hollywood theme. Money raised over the course of the evening will go towards our Sumatran Tiger improvement project.

Stay tuned for more exciting innovations in our carnivore department!