Orphaned Alaskan grizzly cubs face challenges

By Mike Fossano

Three orphaned grizzly bear cubs that recently arrived at the Detroit Zoo via the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), have displayed aberrant behavior that could have detrimental long-term effects on the animals.

“While physically in good condition, two of the cubs engage in a muzzle-to-muzzle stereotypic sucking behavior commonly seen in animals that have been prematurely weaned. Though they appear to be ‘kissing’, they are actually ‘suckling’ each other’s tongue, and this abnormal behavior could cause problems and injury if it persists,” said Scott Carter, Detroit Zoological Society Chief Life Sciences Officer.

The 11-month old brothers – named Mike, Thor and Boo by zookeepers at the Alaska Zoo where they were temporarily housed – touched down at Detroit Metro Airport last month aboard a Federal Express aircraft out of Anchorage.

The Detroit Zoo’s animal care staff is determining the frequency of this stereotypic behavior and trying to eliminate it. The Zoo is providing a calm and quiet quarantine environment for the cubs with lots of enrichment toys and other objects, including branches, straw, various foods and a shallow play pool. The goal is to ensure a stimulating and safe environment.

The 11-month-old grizzly cub brothers were orphaned in October when their mother was killed by a man in Wasilla, Alaska. Wildlife officials contacted the Detroit Zoo seeking a home for the trio after determining that the cubs would not survive Alaska’s harsh winter on their own.

“This situation underscores that, beyond the obvious trauma associated with the loss of a parent and being orphaned, taking a young animal away from its mother prematurely leads to serious consequences, including compromising the animal’s ability to socialize. This is a problem for any juvenile, including pets, domestic animals, wild animals and even captive exotics,” said Ron Kagan, CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

The cubs will remain in quarantine at the Zoo at least until the end of the month.

The Detroit Zoo is also home to two other rescued grizzly bears – 27-year-old female Kintla and 26-year-old Lakota – both of which arrived at the Zoo as 2-year-olds. For many years, the Detroit Zoological Society has helped rescue and provide sanctuary to animals in compromised situations. Among the 316 rescued animals at the Detroit Zoo are a polar bear from a South American circus, three lions from a junkyard in Kansas and hundreds of animals seized from a Texas exotic animal dealer in the largest animal confiscation in U.S. history.

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