Our first bears
Bears have been a part of the San Diego Zoo’s animal collection since 1916, when the Zoo was founded! Those first bears were part of an exhibit left over from the Panama-California Exposition, held in San Diego’s Balboa Park in 1915. Caesar, a misnamed female Kodiak bear, was donated shortly after the Zoo began. She had been a pet on a Navy ship but had outgrown her “cuteness.” After shredding and splintering her first few Zoo cages, money was found to build a concrete moat for Caesar and her fellow bruins.
She perfected the fine art of begging, sitting on her rump and holding up both back feet with her front paws entreating guests to toss peanuts and candy into her lap, a practice we no longer encourage our bears (or guests) to do! Caesar entertained guests with her antics for 20 years before passing away in 1936.
The big guy
During the 1970s and much of the ’80s, one of the stars of the San Diego Zoo was Chester, an Alaskan peninsular brown bear. Many people knew of him before even stepping foot on Zoo grounds: they had seen friends’ home movies and photos of him in action (some footage still exists on the Internet!). When a Zoo tour bus pulled up to his grotto, Chester would try to coax a bear biscuit from the driver by waving (first his right paw, then his left), rubbing his stomach, and/or rising on his hind legs to his full 10-foot height.
During his 15 years, Chester displayed cleverness and charisma that were as impressive as his huge size. Jim Joiner, Chester’s main keeper, said he was the most intelligent animal he had ever worked with. Chester was also one of the most popular animals at the Zoo and is still fondly remembered by many San Diegans.
Brown bears have continued to delight and awe Zoo visitors. Today, the Zoo is home to two grizzly bear brothers, Scout and Montana. They were born in Idaho, outside of Yellowstone Park. But their mother was teaching them bad habits, marauding for food in human-occupied areas, so she was sent to a facility in Washington, and the cubs were moved to San Diego in November 2007, when they were 10-month-old fuzzy balls of joy.
These days, the brothers continue to play and enjoy each other’s company, even sleeping together in a tangled heap. Montana is about 40 pounds heavier than Scout and has a more disc-shaped face than his brother. He also likes to spend his time soaking in the pool while Scout is always eager to play, the athlete of the two.
Brown bears have a fearsome reputation and can be more aggressive than most other bear species. However, each bear is different and usually won't attack humans unless it feels threatened. The brown bear once ranged throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Due to humans’ fear, heavy hunting for meat and sport, and medicinal uses, the bear's range has shrunk considerably. Some cultures believe a bear's organs can cure certain illnesses; for example, the bear's gallbladder is still highly prized in Asian markets and can fetch a high price.
While humans impact the environment in a variety of ways, ultimately it is one single factor that poses, by far, the greatest threat to the persistence of all wild bear populations: habitat loss. Suitable habitat is being lost or fragmented at an alarming pace. Climate change, resource extraction, and human population growth have all contributed to habitat losses. But, while these challenges may seem daunting, if we can change our habits, reduce our carbon footprint, and make conscientious changes in how we buy and use products, we can reverse these trends, and we can save the world’s bears.
Historically, hunting was the greatest threat to all bear species. Unregulated hunting had dramatic impacts on population numbers for bears worldwide, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when a lack of regulation was coupled with enhanced access to bears (through motorized vehicles) and more efficient weapons. The unregulated “take” of wild bears continues in some parts of the world, and bear parts and the pet trade have continued to take their toll on a number of Asian bear species (except the giant panda).
Just as the impact of hunting on most bear populations was minimized through the efforts of people, so, too, can the impact of habitat loss and climate change be reduced. We can all make a difference, and the first step is to get passionate about bears and bear conservation. Where’s a great place to start? The San Diego Zoo! Brown bears are not endangered, but as humans continue to put pressure on the bear's wild spaces, we are challenged to find ways to share space with this magnificent animal.