All of the bear species around the world are documented as being solitary animals in the wild, and sun bears are no exception. However, this does not always mean that the species is inherently anti-social. Social structures of wild animals are often formed on account of external environmental pressures, rather than simply the personal preference of the individual. Bears are generally the biggest animal species that live within their various habitats and therefore cannot afford to spend time and forage with con-specifics, especially if females are trying to provide for cubs. However, when this pressure of competition for resources is lifted, and bears are well enriched and not feeling additional possible stressors of captivity, we see that they are incredibly social animals and seem to take a great deal of joy in companionship. We would certainly consider it a priority for the welfare of captive bears to house them in groups, rather than mimic the solitary lifestyle that is observed in wild individuals.
With the orphan sun bears that have found sanctuary at Matang, we have always been keen to integrate them with the other resident bears as soon as we consider it safe enough to do so. Our integration process is deliberately slow, giving the animals a long time to comfortably adjust to each new scenario, or bear, that is presented to them. Though changes to a captive animal’s routine can be enriching, it can also be very stressful for them, so it is important not to bombard them with too many big changes in succession if the aim is to keep the bears as peaceful and therefore friendly to each other as possible.
Karmele, the youngest resident cub at Matang, has been quite the social butterfly over the past few weeks as we progress with her integration with the rest of the hill bear group. Karmele and Winnie, who have both recently turned 1 year old, cannot get enough of each other during their play dates. There seems to be no limit to the energy that can be expended when they are together. However, Karmele is now of an age where we can start mixing her with the adults of the group. We decided to mix Karmele and Winnie together with one adult at a time in an effort to diffuse some of manic cub energy away from any unsuspecting grown-up bears.
First up we mixed Karmele, Winnie and Matang’s most tolerant and sweet-natured bear, Biddle (AKA Fat Bear). As expected Fat Bear was lovely to Karmele despite the cub’s unsolicited attempts to jump on top of her head. Understandably Fat Bear preferred to just keep well out of the play fights that ensued between the youngsters. Despite copping a few head butts and gnashing teeth to the scruff, Fat Bear always just moved quietly out of the way time and time again without reprimanding the dynamic duo as they rolled around the night dens.
Next up it was Becks’ turn to meet Karmele. However, this time the tables turned. Karmele and Becks hit it off and were inseparable from the time the door opened and at first little Winnie sat on the sidelines looking a bit confused. However, Winnie eventually got back in there and all three of them had a very energetic afternoon playing with and chasing each other.
We then mixed the cubs with Wong, Matang’s geriatric male sun bear. Wong was extremely receptive to the boisterous attentions of Karmele and once again poor little Winnie became the third wheel. However, luckily for Winnie the old boy doesn’t have the stamina of the youngsters so when Wong escaped for regular breaks to catch his breath Winnie stepped back into the ring to play fight the ever-exuberant ball of energy that is Karmele.
After four very positive introductions we decided to mix Karmele, Winnie, Becks, Wong and Biddle together. This went extremely well. Karmele seemed delighted to have Wong, Winnie and Becks all in the one place and they were equally adoring of her. Once again Biddle kept a low profile and was indeed somewhat oblivious to the manic play session that was taking place around her. The introduction went so well that we left them unsupervised. When we returned to check them a couple of hours later Wong had taken refuge and was fast asleep next to Biddle on a platform whilst the youngsters continued to play with no signs of tiring.
Our sad news from the world of Matang’s bears is that Gaby passed away over the weekend. Towards the end of the week she looked very lethargic, showing little appetite or inclination to do anything other than sleep. After two days of this behaviour, it appears that she went to sleep on Saturday night and simply did not wake up again. This is not a huge shock, as this sun bear was well into her twilight years – as far as we can work out through the patch-work of records that we have from the years before we worked at Matang, Gaby was much older than 20 years, and sun bears are thought to live up to 20+ in captivity. Though there is always some sadness when an animal dies, we also feel satisfaction that she seemed to enjoy her last years, and certainly enjoyed the year that she spent side by side with her cub, Winnie. We also feel a little relieved for Wong, who can now enjoy every meal and enrichment item without fear of getting unnecessarily shouted at or bitten by the ever-cantankerous Gaby; unless Winnie steps up to fill this aggression void of course, which she is showing early signs of being happy to do.