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!

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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!

Rise and Shine!

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Uncategorized

Spring is here and the bears at Wildlife Safari have started venturing out and stretching their legs after a long four months of hibernation. Although still a little sleepy, the bears are looking happy and healthy, having lost a substantial amount of weight during their time of rest.

One of the black bears surrounded by snacks and enrichment

One of the black bears, Chochmo surrounded by snacks and enrichment – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

When the bears first get up, they ease into eating again, starting on small amounts of simple foods and slowly increasing as summer approaches.

The black bears typically hibernate for longer than the brown bears, but are also starting to emerge for the spring.

Grizzly brothers, Mak and Oso, enjoying the spring sunshine - photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Grizzly brothers, Mak and Oso, enjoying the spring sunshine – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

Sunshine adventures

Little Boy on sunshine adventures – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

In the wild, spring is the time when cubs are around, emerging from their dens with their mothers for the first time. Bears will give birth while hibernating, with cubs nursing on their snoozing mother through the winter. By the time spring rolls around, cubs are big enough to explore and play while their mothers find food.

This may seem like a good way to raise small young, and it is not just good timing that allows them to give birth during hibernation. Bears can actually delay implantation of fertilized eggs to make sure their pregnancy goes through these resting months. “Delayed implantation is a really cool feature of the bear reproductive cycle,” says Melissa Fox, primary bear trainer at Wildlife Safari. “Bears will typically mate in late spring, but the fertilized egg won’t attach to the uterine wall until fall, and only if the female has gained enough weight to sustain her – typically around 150lbs.” If the female does not gain that weight, the pregnancy will be terminated. This pregnancy will only last 2 months, giving the little cubs time to grow before the end of the hibernation period. Cubs are born tiny and hairless, though they are much bigger and stronger when they leave the den. “They are born early so they can switch to mammary nourishment (milk) sooner,” explains Fox. “It’s more energy efficient.”

Takoda the black bear saying hello to his keepers

Little Girl, the black bear saying hello to her keepers – photo courtesy of Melissa Fox

As their primary, Fox spends a lot of time with both the brown and black bears. “I love how intelligent and playful they are,” she says. “It makes them so much fun to work with.”

Once they are awake and ready to eat, bears are mostly foragers – eating whatever is around. While they do eat meat, they won’t generally hunt, preferring to eat prey that another animal has caught, although they will also fish.

The black bears love their ponds

The black bears love their ponds – photo courtesy of Taylor Sherrow

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Photo courtesy of Melissa Fox

Big Bear encounters have started, so if you haven’t met our brown bears, now is the perfect time to come and see them!

Hibernation Season

Behind the Scenes, Carnivores, Creature Feature, Keeper Chats, Uncategorized

While many of us wish we could hibernate through the winter, for most it is just wishful thinking while we’re out in the cold. However, for bears – including those of Wildlife Safari, this dream is their reality every winter!

Now, this may not seem very special, after all, bears are well known for their hibernating habits. However, hibernation is actually a learned behavior, something they need to be taught, rather than a built in instinct.

Hibernation is a learned behavior, something they need to be taught, rather than instinct.

This means that when orphan bears end up in captivity, it can be difficult to teach them to hibernate.

All the bears at Wildlife Safari hibernate during the winter. But we will focus on our four brown bears. There are several different subspecies of brown bear, distinguishable from black bears not by color but by the hump of muscle between the shoulders that makes brown bears such strong diggers. Our two boys (Mak and Oso) are Grizzly bears, and our girls (Claire and Russel) are Alaskan Coastal brown bears.


The bears at Wildlife Safari hibernate from November to February.”It’s an extremely healthy process for them,” says Taylor Sherrow, one of the Carnivore Keepers looking after the bears. “They can loose between 150- 200 lbs while hibernating.”

Bears are cued to hibernate by changes in light, temperature and food availability. As it gets cold and dark, and food becomes scarce, bears will slow down and eventually build the den which will be their winter home. Keepers spend weeks gradually adjusting the bears diets to mimic food availability in the wild (decreasing yummy foods like fruits, and increasing less appealing vegetables). This change in diet also helps them get the fiber they need to block up their system as they won’t ‘go to the bathroom’ until they emerge in the spring.

One of our Grizzly boys all snuggled up

While they all tend to go to sleep at around them same time, if one wakes up before the others, that will usually wake the rest. “The girls normally decide when it is time to wake up,” says Sherrow. How do keepers know when they are ready to wake up for spring, you may ask? Well, its pretty clear. The girls will knock on the door to their yard, generally making quite a racket, to let their keepers know its time.
We’re glad our bears hibernate as it has a variety of health benefits. If only humans could fix health problems by sleeping for months at a time! Their winter weight loss  prevent obesity and related diseases, and they can also heal fairly serious injuries while sleeping, and have been known to give birth and nurse during this time!

At Wildlife Safari, the Grizzly boys, Mak and Oso, will share their den space, snuggling up to each other. The Alaskan Coastal girls, Claire and Russel, have their own den rooms for one very simple reason… Russel hogs the bed. Once each has been given their pile of hay to bed down in, Russel will take all of it and build herself a giant bed – leaving her sister on the floor. However, keeping them separate means that Claire, too, can sleep in comfort.

During the winter, guests can join the keepers in checking on the sleeping bears with our Hibernating Bear encounter. So if you’d like to meet our brown bears up close, you can have the rare opportunity of seeing hibernation in ‘action’!

The Grizzly bears when they are up and active