What’s Next For the Orphaned Cubs of Dead Grizzly?

Most offspring of problem bears end up in zoos. Is that the right place for them?

Say hello to Dolly, and to her equally photogenic siblings Koda and LouLou.

Lots of people offer them salutations in Salt Lake City. One of the most popular activities at Utah's Hogle Zoo, in fact, is taking selfies with these charismatic triplets as they press their noses and paws up against a dividing wall of glass, literally within inches of human admirers. (See National Geographic's best bear pictures.)

They are Internet-age superstars—"ambassadors," as one zoo official says— and they are the closest many urbanites will ever get to encountering a wild-born grizzly bear.

Today, Dolly, Koda, and LouLou dwell behind a water-filled moat in an artificial make-believe habitat known as Rocky Shores.

Special Series: Living With Bears. As bear populations rebound across the United States, and as people increasingly move into their habitat, bear-human run-ins are inevitable. This is one of several stories asking: How do we live with the predators?

But just five summers ago, the threesome were yearling cubs with no fawning pet names attached to them, roaming the rugged mountainous intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho with their mother.

And then, quite suddenly, their lives in late July 2010 took a dramatic turn.

After their mother killed a man and injured two other tourists in a campground just outside the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, wildlife managers captured all four bruins. Given the matriarch's dangerous and aggressive behavior, she was euthanized.

But what to do about her cubs?

Would the orphans be "put to sleep," or possibly turned loose as one-and-a-half year olds to fend for themselves in the backcountry around America's first national park? Should the cubs be relocated to a zoo where they could spend the rest of their days under the care of human guardians? Or should they be placed in a “rehabilitation facility” capable of transitioning them back toward eventual re-release in the wild?

Park managers contemplating their fate were in a quandary—the same predicament in which Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk found himself only days ago.

Earlier this month, Wenk made the controversial decision to euthanize a popular Yellowstone grizzly mother, nicknamed Blaze by wildlife photographers, after she killed a 63-year-old hiker and fed on him.

The choice wasn't made lightly: Removing female grizzlies that themselves can grow up to be reproducing mother bears—key to keeping a population robust—is always a concern.

But the aftermath attracted the rapt attention of bear lovers around the world. And as the saga unfolded in the most public way possible, every option being considered generated controversy. (Related: "What Do You Do With a Bear That Kills a Person?")

Blaze's surviving offspring—twin females less than a year old—are now being prepared to travel to a new home 1,200 (1,900 kilometers) away, at Ohio's Toledo Zoo.

As of this week, more than 190,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Wenk reverse his decision and send the cubs instead to a rehabilitation facility, where they could be reared for potential re-release back into the wild.

While there are several such facilities in North America that specialize in holding black bears, only one, in British Columbia, has had success with taking young grizzlies, reprogramming their behavior and setting them loose again in their original haunts without further incident.

Despite the strength of the petition, Wenk decided not to reverse course with Blaze's cubs. Since he rejected the idea to euthanize the cubs, the superintendent needed to act quickly to find a facility that would take them.

And now it's too late to put the cubs in a rehab facility, especially if the goal would be potentially returning them to their wild homeland. Experts say that once bears have been handled by too many people over the course of being moved around, the prospects of successful rehabilitation dramatically diminish.

Zookeepers in Toledo were happy to oblige, as they'd been looking to add grizzlies to their collection for decades.

Problem Bears

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, would prefer sending the cubs to a rehabilitation facility with plenty of terrain or even immediately turning them back in the wild after their mother was killed.

Any option, he believes, would be preferable to putting them in a zoo.  

The scientific literature clearly shows that captive wildlife suffer from high rates of mental stress—no different than human prisoners do, he claims, according to his book   Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Co-existence.

"Highly intelligent animals like solitude-seeking bears with large home ranges sometimes as large as a few hundred square miles are not meant to live in confined spaces, to be gawked at by large crowds of people," Bekoff says.

"I'm not meaning to go off on an anti-zoo rant here, nor am I being critical of the Toledo Zoo in particular, but captive conditions strip away the essence of a free and wild bear."

Asked about Bekoff’s concerns, zoo officials responded in a statement: “The Toledo Zoo is proud we could provide a home for the grizzly cubs. The welfare of the young bears is our priority."

The statement noted that the zoo meets or exceeds the highest standards for quality animal care and visitor experience. “They will also be a part of our extensive enrichment program," the statement said, referring to the bears, "that is dedicated to encouraging natural behaviors in a sensory rich environment."

For decades, wildlife managers have turned to zoos as fallback options for handling "problem bears." Millions of Americans each year lay their eyes on real Yellowstone grizzlies without ever setting foot inside the park. The reason: Dozens of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies in recent decades have been sent away to zoos and other wildlife facilities but none have gone to places where the goal is re-release in the wild.  

The Cleveland Zoo has two grizzlies from the Northern Rockies named Jackson and Cheyenne; Zoo Montana in Billings has a former Yellowstone bear named Ozzy; the San Diego Zoo has a pair of Yellowstone-area grizzlies named Scout and Montana; and in 2015 the Central Park Zoo welcomed Betty from Montana and Veronica from Yellowstone.

Some bears end up in zoos after their mothers are killed by hunters or perish in accidents. Others are exiled for committing a range of perceived offenses such as behaving too aggressively toward people, damaging property, or, in the case of Dolly, Koda, LouLou, and Blaze's offspring, having a mother that killed or ate a person. (Also see "Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals?")

"If it were me and I were the bear cubs of Blaze, I would prefer to try and make a go of it in the only real home I knew—Yellowstone—rather than end up permanently in confinement," Bekoff says. "Sometimes the most humane option is to put them out of their misery."

Hard-Knock Life

Zoos and captive settings may have their drawbacks, but simply turning parentless cubs loose in the wild presents long odds against survival, experts say.

Frank van Manen, leader of the Bozeman, Montana-based Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, says it's a hard-knock life for young bears, even with an attentive mother at their side.

"The probability of a cub surviving its first year is 55 percent; the survival rate when orphaned would be much less and would probably vary greatly depending on the time of the year the cubs are orphaned," van Manen says.

Small cubs born in early spring that don't have a lot of experience with the mother outside the den would likely not survive as well as cubs orphaned in mid to late fall, when they had the opportunity to learn from their parent during the summer, he notes.

Blaze's cubs had not yet undergone a complete year of foraging under their mother's tutelage, especially during the time known as hyperphagia, when bears consume as many high-value foods as possible in the fall prior to denning and hibernation. Because of that, van Manen says, their outlook would be bleak.

If Blaze's cubs had been yearlings—or even better, two-and-a-half-year-olds—recently cut loose from her, their chances of survival would rise.

Yellowstone's chief bear specialist, Kerry Gunther, says that if a grizzly reaches  four—which is considered adulthood—the odds it will survive improve to 96 percent.

If the goal is keeping cubs alive, zoos are the closest things to a guarantee. Finding professionally accredited zoos to take bears, however, is surprisingly difficult.

"Most zoos are full where bears are concerned," Gunther says. "They have no need for more because the grizzlies they have live long lives and die of old age. Bears have greater longevity because they receive better care than what they would deal with in the wild."

Bears and People, Nose to Nose

The route that Dolly, LouLou, and Koda took from Yellowstone to Utah's Hogle Zoo was an odyssey. Initially, they went to Zoo Montana and then to New York's  Buffalo Zoo, before being welcomed with an outpouring of enthusiasm in Salt Lake City.  

Hogle Zoo spokesperson Erica Hansen says the trio seems perfectly contented. They are in good health, frolic and play, and according to staff veterinarians, don't appear to suffer from any overt neuroses. "They have been awesome exhibit animals and crowd favorites," Hansen says. (Read "Building the Ark" in National Geographic magazine.)

"Our exhibit is designed to get you nose to nose. To see their paws and teeth right up close is what has made them an awesome addition to the zoo."

Bekoff's main criticism is that grizzlies in zoos exist for the enjoyment of people and not in service to honoring the true nature of the animal.

If the Toledo Zoo wants to serve the interests of public education, he says, it would use the opportunity to make people aware of the personal responsibility and risk involved when people choose to enter grizzly country.

"Humans control all of the variables in zoos and set the terms for how we are supposed to think of grizzlies, whereas in Yellowstone bears have a greater say over how they exist," he says. (See "Why You're More Likely To Be Killed By a Bee Than a Bear.")

"Although it's highly unlikely, it's still possible that you could get eaten by a grizzly in Yellowstone. It's part of the reason why they deserve our respect and humility. That reality is completely lost when a bear is sent to a facility where a human trainer shapes how it acts."

An Unpredictable Public

Blaze's twins are expected to formally be unveiled in Toledo later this fall—the first time in 30 years that grizzlies have been showcased there.

Meantime, Wenk's senior bear researcher, Kerry Gunther, is perplexed by how some circumstances trigger public outrage over certain bear management actions, while others don't.

"When I remove a bear that has killed and consumed somebody, it causes a major uproar and elicits thousands of comments on social media," he said.

"But when we remove a bear because it's been damaging property and hasn't harmed anyone, we don't typically hear a peep of protest from the public."

Environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson is author of the new book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone. Follow him on Twitter.

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