The Story of Grizzly Bears Ronan and Finley

Grizzly bearAt Reid Park Zoo, Keepers want every animal that arrives from another location to feel welcomed and loved in its new home.  Moving can be a stressful experience, during which animals are overwhelmed with brand new sights, sounds, and smells.  If you’ve ever moved from one house to another, you know how disorienting it can be—now imagine not being able to understand what’s going on!

Few animals at the Zoo had a more challenging moving experience than Ronan and Finley, the two grizzly bears who arrived at the Zoo in the summer of 2013.  Born on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Northwestern Montana, the 18-month old bears had to be removed from the wild after learning problem behaviors that brought them into conflict with humans.  Their mother, who taught them how to get easy food by eating garbage and raiding food storage buildings, was euthanized after repeatedly bringing her cubs back to the same residential area to look for food.  Now, the orphaned cubs needed a home in order to survive—and that’s where Reid Park Zoo came to the rescue.  Working with wildlife officials in Montana, and the Salish and Kootenai Indian Tribes, the Zoo provided a new, safe home for Ronan and Finley after their capture.

Ronan and Finley had already been through a lot when they arrived at the Zoo, so they were understandably skittish at first.  Like all new animal arrivals, the bears spent 30 days in quarantine the Animal Health Center, where they were monitored carefully for any health issues.  To build the bears’ trust, Zoo Keeper Alisha Brewer and Area Supervisor Leslie Waters spent many long hours with the bears those first few days, sitting quietly beside their enclosure and feeding them through the fence with tongs.  Alisha and Leslie quickly learned some of the bears’ favorite foods—male Ronan loved dog chow, while female Finley preferred frozen fruit treats.  Ronan was much braver, while Finley hid behind her brother most of the time.  But both bears picked up quickly on behavior training because they love to eat!  Leslie and Alisha easily taught both bears to touch their noses to a target stick in return for a food reward—this behavior helps keepers move the bears around their enclosure as necessary, and it can be built into other behaviors that help them inspect the bears’ bodies for any cuts, scrapes, or other physical problems.

Alisha, now the bears’ primary daily keeper, fell in love with them right away and has enjoyed watching them grow more and more confident in their new home.  When the bears were moved to their exhibit in September, they enthusiastically explored and played in their stream and on the grassy yard.  Ronan seems very curious about the 70,000 gallon pool but can’t quite muster the courage to jump in; he sits on the shallow ledges and paws at the water instead.  Both bears are still nervous at any new sounds—and some that they hear all the time, like the keepers’ electric carts driving by on the back road.

Alisha says that one of the funniest things about the bears is how confused they are by toys.  Animals born in zoos grow up with toys—plastic or rubber balls, burlap sacks, cardboard boxes and other safe objects.  But wild bears like Ronan and Finley have no idea what to do with toys, so they often just ignore them.  They prefer branches or pine cones, which make more sense to them.

Every day brings new challenges for Zoo Keepers, but Alisha says, “I’m so excited to be working with such fun and beautiful animals, and I’m honored to be a part of giving them a second chance.”