Off The Press
June 9, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
Zoo invites visitors, wary reporter to feed grizzlies
Woodland Park Zoo visitors ogle resident grizzlies Keema and Denali from behind thick glass and across an enclosure landscaped to hide the barrier between man and beast. Outfitted with a bubbling stream and evergreens, the bear exhibit resembles a stretch of Pacific Northwest wilderness once part of the grizzly’s range.
Zookeepers know the grizzly habitat can resemble a campsite after a few tweaks. On June 6, keepers transformed the grizzly habitat into a campsite, albeit one pitched by ignorant campers and stocked with provisions that can bring grizzlies and humans into contact with one another.
As part of the annual Bear Affair, keepers shooed the grizzlies from the habitat while they added a haphazard campsite to the enclosure. Food was stored near the tent, trash was left unsecured — both no-nos for campers hoping to avoid an unfortunate grizzly encounter. When keepers released grizzlies into the redone enclosure, Keema and Denali made short work of the nylon tent, rubber raft and plastic coolers left behind by nonexistent campers.
I imagined the bears would tear through the mock campsite, using their claws — each 3 to 4 inches long — to wreak havoc. Instead, Keema and Denali moved methodically through the campsite, relying on their powerful noses to direct them to the choicest items left behind by their keepers.
I watched as one of the bears lumbered away from his brother to eat a box of cereal. Even bears hoard Cap’n Crunch. Meanwhile, the other bear shredded a raft into confetti-sized pieces and then used his powerful paws to pry open a beverage cooler filled with juice. Less than 40 minutes after the bears set upon the campsite, only debris remained.
Zookeepers hosted a second campsite demonstration later. During the second round, however, keepers used bear-safe provisions and techniques — safer for bears and humans alike.
Humans continue to encroach on bear habitat. Bear Affair was set up to alert people about how interactions between bear and man can be detrimental to both species.Whereas grizzlies once roamed forests across the western United States and the Pacific Northwest, their modern-day range is limited to western Canada and Alaska.
About 25,000 black bears remain in Washington and only 30 or so grizzlies still roam the North Cascades and Selkirk Mountains, according to figures provided by the zoo.
Sensationalism ensues whenever bears are sighted in neighborhoods. A bear evaded wildlife officers in Seattle for several days last month and became a media darling in the process. Bear sightings in Issaquah are nothing new either.
On June 4, I hurried to a report of a black bear in the Issaquah Highlands near the Central Park trailhead. By the time I arrived, however, the only black I saw was the color of the uniforms on the Issaquah Police officers who had also responded to the tip.
A couple of days later, I had a close-up bear encounter at Woodland Park Zoo. Before the campsite demonstrations, I joined conservationists and zookeepers for a behind-the-bars look at the grizzly exhibit.
Coaxed with a grape reward, the bears obliged us by standing on their hind legs to show off their impressive bulk. Keepers were ready to shepherd us toward our next stop when another member of my group piped up.
“Will we be allowed to feed the bears?” she asked.
When it was my turn to slip a grape through the metal bars, I hesitated. Then, realizing I would never be so close to a docile bear again, popped a grape into the mouth of a full-grown grizzly.
Yes, I still have all of my fingers.
Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.