Bear Care: Bear Awareness Days at the National Zoo

The Bear Awareness Days event raises awareness about the animals in general and teaches about conservation issues that affect all bear species

Adorable andean bear cubs
Adorable andean bear cubs Courtesy of the National Zoo

It’s summertime and bears are up and active. But how much do you really know about bears? Do you know what to do if you have a bear in your backyard? Or how to camp safely without attracting them? What kind of bears live in your area? Well, our friends at the National Zoo would like to help educate you. This weekend, the Zoo is hosting “Bear Awareness Days,” from 10 AM to 2 PM. “The purpose is to raise awareness about bears in general,” says animal keeper Mindy Babitz,  “and to learn about conservation issues that affect all of the bear species.” Babitz, who has worked at the Zoo for almost 13 years and currently works with sloth bears, gave us a preview of what visitors can expect to learn.

1. Bear Facts—”Some people think that all bears are these fierce killing machines,” Babitz says, “that’s a big misconception.” In fact, only the polar bear is a true carnivore, most other bears are omnivores. Another misconception is that bears are always looking to attack. The truth is most bears are pretty shy and want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. “If you do come across a bear in the woods, chances are they’re just going to take off because they don’t want to be around you,” Babitz says. Bears do sometimes attack and can certainly hurt you, but the number of bear attacks—often sensationalized—make up a small proportion of the encounters bears have with people every year.

2. Do Not Feed the Bears— Bears are wild animals and you should not feed them, even if you see them in your own backyard. There is a saying, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” for good reason. Bears in the wild need to look for natural food. But if a bear is in an area with a high human population, they’re going to go for the easy food sources—bowls of pet food, bird feeders, trash—over the natural food sources. And once they start eating these foods, they will keep coming back. “If a bear gets used to having that food source and then you take it away, they’re going to be angry and looking for food because they expect it at that point,” Babitz says.  “Then you end up with a nuisance bear and normally a nuisance bear is going to end up being shot.” To stop that from happening, Babitz encourages people who live in bear country to get rid of the food sources that are going to attract a bear and put their trash cans out right before pickup.

3. Camping Safety—How would you set up a campsite to be bear safe? Check out the hands-on activities that will help visitors think through their decisions.

4. Conservation— Asian bears face habitat loss because of exploding human populations in China and India. They are also in danger of being poached and farmed for their body parts, which are used in some traditional Asian medicine. “It’s an absolutely horrific practice,” Babitz says.  And sloth bears are still being subjected to the dancing bear trade in some countries. Learn how the dancing bears are made to dance and get information on what you can do to help.

5. Bear Care—At the Zoo, animal keepers are responsible for the mental and physical well-being of the bears in their care. While they never actually go into the enclosure with the bears for safety reasons, they are able to interact with them. Find out how they keep the bears active, mentally stimulated and engaged in enrichment activities to make sure the bears develop species-specific behaviors, like foraging for food.

Bears are very intelligent animals. “Those of use who work with the bears often see them as a cross between a dog and a great ape,” Babitz says. “They have a lot of the behaviors and characteristics of a dog, but the intelligence is almost like an ape.” Visitors can get up close and personal with the bears through the viewing glass and, surprisingly enough, the bears like to people watch just as much as people like to watch them.

“Bear Awareness Days” will be held Saturday, June 4 and Sunday, June 5, 10AM-2PM at the National Zoo’s Asia Trail.

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