“In various zoos around North America,” says Saffoe, curator for the great cats and bears, “the problem has been since 2005, only two litters have survived so far.” Both of those litters belong to the National Zoo’s bear, Billie Jean. All the others have died after day seven, according to Saffoe, which the Zoo’s cubs marked Wednesday, December 20.
The population also continues to dwindle in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning the successful breeding of the species is an important victory. And because the National Zoo is one of the few zoos that actually monitors its newborn cubs with the use of an infrared camera installed in the otherwise dark den the bears use, Saffoe says his team is perfectly poised to contribute original findings about what’s made its program so successful.
“We’re extremely lucky that we have this bear and that she’s reproducing for us,” says Saffoe, “and that we have the equipment to be able to watch her. I don’t think a lot of viewers quite realize how special what they’re watching is.”
His team has begun looking through the recorded footage that begins on November 30 when Billie Jean first exhibited signs she was nearing labor. Searching for clues as to what makes the environment or the animals so unique, Saffoe says this time around the cameras are even better than for the birth in 2010.
The cubs aren’t out of the woods yet, of course. Estimating that his team won’t be able to access the cubs for another nine weeks, Saffoe says there’s still plenty of unknowns that could go wrong, citing the example of the infant panda who recently died at the Zoo. Barring unforeseen illness, Saffoe says the most realistic dangers are maternal neglect and accidents, including the possibility that the mother could crush the cubs.
In the meantime, he will listen in for vocalizations to be sure all is proceeding normally. Saffoe says, “Everything seems to be going really, really well. We’re very happy with how things sound and look.”