Our Florida black bear habitat is full of odd objects, from hollow toys full of snacks to a hammock for peak napping.
Now, you can spot a hobbit-hole-like mound on the left-hand side of their area. Keepers are encouraging our two bears, Brody and Cheyenne, to act on their natural instinct to hole up during the upcoming winter months by providing them with the start of dens.
While Florida black bears don’t hibernate as long or deeply as their northern relatives to avoid the severe cold and lack of food, they do become much less active during the winter and some opt to stay in a den for chunks of time. This semi-hibernation state is called torpor.
Keeper Marc Franzen noticed last year that Cheyenne was attempting to dig her own den underneath a pile of rocks in the habitat, which was deemed to be unsafe because of the lack of support and potential for it to collapse. Keepers had to fill in the makeshift den.
“This year, we saw an opportunity to give them the option to do it in a safer way,” Marc said.
The Zoo’s facilities team dug a four-foot hole in a section of the bears’ public-facing habitat and created a concrete block “cave,” which was then covered with dirt and plants. A second similar den was built in the bears’ side yard area as well, which is not visible to the public.
Dirt was placed inside of the dens to allow Brody and Cheyenne to act on their natural behavior of digging out their own dens.
Landscaping over the den does more than make the area look natural. The grassy plants allow the bears to act on their instinct to eat vegetation, which acts as a natural plug that prevents them from defecating in their den while hibernating.
Cheyenne in particular has been exhibiting typical bear behavior just before the onset of winter. She’s become more lethargic and much hungrier. She’s gained 50 pounds since August in preparation for the leaner times of winter she’d find in her natural range.
“Life now is eat, sleep, eat, sleep…” Marc said.
Both bears will still receive their regular diets and have access to their night houses during this time.
Keepers are unsure what Brody and Cheyenne will do with their dens since this is the first time the bears have had access to a den at the Zoo.
Speaking with officials at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marc learned that the bears may begin using their dens around the beginning of December until February. The bears still may come out on warmer days.
While the bears may not be visible in their habitat much over the next few months, a camera has been placed in the back corner of one of the dens. If one of the bears decides to use the den to hibernate, staff can monitor their activity – and the Zoo hopes to broadcast the feed on a TV in the Wild Florida loop for guests to watch. Keep an eye out for updates on this!
While building bear dens from scratch take a lot of preparation and manpower, the results are well worth it.
“It’s just an extra opportunity to provide a better life for them,” Marc said. “Providing top animal welfare is at the basis of everything that we do.”
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