Cubs get catered meals 35 times a week

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Fatty sauce, bananas, salmon, rice, kibble. Four orphaned brown bear cubs eat well and often at the Alaska Zoo.

Just ask zookeeper Shannon Jensen, the designated bruin-baby chef on a recent morning.

The food is everything they'll get as they grow up in captivity - just in smaller quantities, said Jensen as she sprinkled and stirred in a workroom of the zoo's clinic.

"We see a lot of bear cubs. A lot of cubs come through here because we're the zoo in Alaska," she said.

A female-male pair arrived this month from the Willow area, where their mother was shot after killing a moose calf outside a home. They joined two orphaned males whose mother was shot in late May on the Anchorage Hillside and who were captured after a 10-day effort by residents and biologists.

The first cubs, unofficially named Koda and Kenai after characters in the movie "Brother Bear," are likely headed to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, possibly as soon as late June or early July, said Alaska Zoo director Tex Edwards.

The Midwest facility wants the Anchorage cubs for its big North America exhibit, where they would grow up in an enclosure with trees, rocks and pools, said Patty Peters, associate zoo director of marketing.

"They have resources and people, and they're very good at what they do," Edwards said.

The other twins don't have a destination yet, but two Lower 48 zoos have asked the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for permission to adopt them, Edwards said.

"I've got a couple options and I've made some phone calls and I'm doing some checking," said Tim Peltier, a state biologist who oversees permits to display Alaska wildlife. "I've got two places on my short list right now."

Additional orphaned cubs might not be so lucky, Peltier said. Once known openings at suitable facilities get used up, wildlife officials might have to kill or ignore cubs that lose their mothers.

The zoo will not take a cub unless the state has a prospect for adoption, Edwards said.

"Certainly we're going to avoid that as much as possible because that's just ugly all the way around, but as time goes by it's going to be harder to find a home," Peltier said. "Right now I don't have any (places) for black bear cubs."

In the meantime, all four grizzly babies need to put on weight and adapt to life in a cage with people nearby.

"You just have to be real attentive as you would with all babies," Jensen said. "You just have to watch them."

The care entails administering medicine for common parasites like worms, plus providing the animals with toys such as burlap bags stuffed with straw, balls, plastic buckets and dog chews. Freezing fruit into ice chunks, a snack called "bear pops," transforms eating into a game.

Making sure they gain weight - up to a pound per day during the height of summer - may be most critical. The zoo staff feeds these baby animals 35 times per week with a concoction as rich as any human entree.

It begins with a batch of high-protein, high-fat puppy formula of whey, vegetable oil, butterfat, egg yolks and 36 other ingredients. This luscious white sauce then gets poured over a bed of crunchy protein morsels (better known among ursine gourmands as puppy chow). A helping of bananas and boiled white rice helps digestion, Jensen said. And the presentation gets enhanced with chilled, chopped salmon, a favorite among bears everywhere.

The final touch? A sprinkling of bone meal along with vitamins A, D and B-12.

"Bears are pretty easy," Jensen said.

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