Early awakening for Ecomuseum’s black bears


PHOTO BY STEPHANIE O’HANLEY

Genie (left) and Juno explore their snowy habitat after waking from their winter hibernation at Ste. Anne de Bellevue’s Ecomuseum zoo.

You’d think after months in hibernation bears would be grumbly, but when the Ste. Anne de Bellevue Ecomuseum Zoo’s two black bears, Juno and Genie, made their first official public outing of 2016 on Tuesday, March 1, they were raring to go.

“They’re a little bit earlier than usual,” said Nicola Fleming, the Ecomuseum’s Animal Keeper. “On average they wake up about mid-March. So beginning of March is a couple of weeks earlier. It’s not the record early but it’s because of the mild winter.”

Even with a predicted blizzard in the forecast, Ecomuseum staff saw signs the bears were ready to come outdoors. “The last few days we noticed the activity levels were beginning to go up so we started to offer food and they started to eat,” Fleming said.

Over the winter the bears are kept in a fenced indoor section of the Ecomuseum where staff can view them and see when they’re awakening. “We do go in, not with them, obviously,” she said. “We check on them every day during the winter.... They were starting to get up and walk around. They started to sniff at the doors, we knew it was coming up.”

Normally bears go to sleep in mid-December, Fleming said. “This year it was more towards the end of December, beginning of January.”

Juno, age 4, the smaller of the two, was the first to stick her neck out into bright sunlight when a staff member opened the fence leading to their outdoor habitat. As parents, children, Ecomuseum staff, and media representatives watched, the bears decided to slowly move forward and explore. Both sniffed the air, sometimes standing on their hind legs, then walked a bit, sniffing some more. At one point Juno lifted a cardboard box to find an orange hidden underneath.

“It’s just enrichment so hidden inside there’s probably some straw and some treats,” explained Fleming. “It’s to encourage them to wake up properly and kind of use their senses, get them nice and stretched prying open a cardboard box.”

Genie, age 5, carefully sniffed the ground. At one point she used a wood pole to pull herself up before she and Juno got into a play fight. As they munched on apples they’d foraged from straw placed on the snow, both bears looked like they were enjoying themselves.

The bears have been with the Ecomuseum for nearly two years and this marked their second time coming out of hibernation at their new home. Until the weather warms up, staff will move the bears between the outdoor and indoor sections and they’ll stay indoors at night.

Juno was found orphaned in Manitoba and was raised by people so she could not be released into the wild, Fleming said. “Genie was born in human care at the Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Félicien.”

She said bears are not particularly social animals but as long as there’s enough food for everybody they get along. “Juno especially she loves to play and Genie’s usually willing to play along with her when she’s invited to.

“They’re excellent friends,” Fleming said. “It’s always fun to see them get up in the spring. Last year the first day up in the spring they spent the whole day playing together and I’ve already seen them playing so I think it should be a good show for the people who are here today.”

Are bears good at predicting spring?

“These ones, so far we’re hoping so,” Fleming said. “Our old bears were great at it. I think they are. It’s the first of March, it’s been warming up, and we’ve had some rain. I think so.”

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