Little Fat Bear

Little Fat Bear

Posted by Michael Starbuck on 3rd Apr 2012

Little Fat Bear arrived at Matang in April 2010, and quickly elevated to the status of my favourite bear. Partly this is because she is exceptionally cute – her name describes her perfectly and though she is full adult, she is the smallest sun bear I have seen. The Bornean sub-species is smaller than the sun bears of mainland South East Asia anyway, and sun bears are of course the smallest of all the bears, but LFB, with her short legs and dumpy stature, takes 'small bear' to another level. Needless to say, she is also cutely rotund. However, it is her personality more than her appearance that stole my heart.

Up until April 2010, LFB had not known a happy existence. For 16 years she had been kept in a small, bare cage with a concrete floor. No enrichment, no variety, high stress and high stereotypic frequency characterised these years. 16 years is easy to say, but think about what you were doing and where you were 16 years ago, and all that you have done in the intervening years. LFB was simply standing in a cage for all that time. Her teeth have also been clipped, a horribly painful process carried out no doubt to ensure she would be a safer pet as a cub (I have often wondered why people do not opt for a goldfish, should they want a safe pet, rather than a bear). You would expect a bear with this background at age 20+ to be a broken individual, massively stressed with little in their behavioural repertoire other than pacing backwards and forwards.

However, this bear soon revealed that she retained many natural behaviours – in her naturalistic, outdoor enclosure she excelled at foraging, climbing, digging, tearing into wood for termites, and was even seen sleeping up in the trees one afternoon, a natural behaviour not expressed by any of our other captive bears, from whom we have been trying to elicit natural behaviour for years! She proved very adept at opening internal cage doors, and would often let herself and fellow bears out of their individual cages to explore the whole night-den area. She has such a calm, insatiable curiosity, and it still amazes me that she did not lose this through the years she was kept in such poor captivity. Her instances of stereotypy are minimal – when she finishes foraging and eating, she prefers instead to lean against a comfortable tree and take a nap. It is always a pleasure to observe her.

A few weeks ago, two of the keepers were talking to each other in front of the quarantine area, when a hairy mammal passed between them. 'How did that dog get in here?' one questioned (they are known as 'dog bears' with good reason). 'IT'S A BEAR!' the other replied – this is the actual exchange that took place. It transpired that while climbing a tree that was a little small, LFB climbed high enough to pull the tree over far enough to reach a tree on the outside of the enclosure wall. She then went for a calm, curious wander past George and Peter's cages (who were not at all calm), past the hornbills and gibbons, and back down the road to the small bridge. Though slowly being surrounded by keepers, she showed no panic, and seemed pleased that they had bought a jar of honey with them (they are also known as the 'honey bears', also with good reason!). She happily followed the honey trail being laid on the floor, and wandered into an as-yet unoccupied gibbon cage. Here she was content to explore, much to the neighbouring gibbons' displeasure and panic, and lick up every drop of honey that had been spilled to tempt her. She was then encouraged into a transport cage by the keepers and wheeled back where she came from.

All in all, it was a rather enriching afternoon for her, and for all the keepers involved of course. Enjoy the accompanying photos.


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