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Two bear cubs born at Smithsonian’s National Zoo to debut in spring

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/26/2022 Karina Elwood
Andean bear Brienne gave birth to two cubs at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C. on Nov. 15. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Zoo) Andean bear Brienne gave birth to two cubs at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C. on Nov. 15. (Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomed two new Andean bear cubs this month, but zoo goers will have to wait until early spring to see the bears in person.

The cubs were born Nov. 15 to Brienne, a 3-year-old first-time mother, and 9-year-old father Quito. Brienne gave birth to the first cub around 4 p.m. and the second around 8:30 p.m.

Staff have been closely monitoring Brienne and the cubs, whose births mark the first successful breeding of Andean bears at the northwest D.C. zoo since 2014. The vulnerable species, known for nesting high in trees, is distinguished by whitish spectacles that encircle their eyes.

“Events like births … help us to highlight that our breeding management plans are working and that we can help increase the numbers of these magnificent animals and hopefully help to increase the chances of long term species survival,” said Craig Saffoe, curator of Andean bears at the zoo.

Brienne’s been adjusting well to motherhood, Saffoe reported, attentively grooming her cubs and encouraging them to nurse. The babies are active and vocal, staff said in a news release announcing the cubs’ arrival this week.

What should I do if I see a bear? First, don’t run away.

In two-to-three months, keepers and veterinarians will examine the cubs to determine their sex. Then, in early spring, the still unnamed cubs will make their public debut at the zoo.

In the meantime, zoo fans can follow Brienne’s early days of motherhood on the Andean Bear Cub Cam, which uses infrared and lowlight camera capabilities to live-stream inside the den. Zookeepers use the same footage to monitor Brienne and the cubs’ progress without interfering.

Andean bears, South America’s only bear species, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The organization estimates that the number of mature bears is between 2,500 and 10,000. The species lives in the Andes mountain range, typically found from western Venezuela south to Bolivia, with sightings reported in eastern Panama and northern Argentina.

There are just under 40 Andean bears in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program that manages breeding of certain animals. Quito came to D.C. in 2017 from Zoo Duisburg in Germany, and Brienne arrived in September 2020 from the Queens Zoo in New York. She reunited with her grandmother and the zoo’s third Andean bear — Billie Jean, who had previously unsuccessfully bred with Quito.

Brienne and Quito bred in late March and early April. Zookeepers trained Brienne to voluntarily participate in ultrasounds to confirm her pregnancy, then in late October, ultrasound images detected heartbeats for two cubs.

Sara Colandrea, an animal keeper at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, tracks the species in the North American SSP. She follows where they live and how they are related. She also studies their personalities, temperament and health to recommend which bears should breed to ensure zoo populations are genetically diverse.

“These cubs are extremely important to the SSP demographically and genetically since Quito’s genes are new to the North American population,” Colandrea said in a news release. “We’re looking forward to watching Brienne navigate motherhood and, of course, all the cute antics we’re bound to see from little bear cubs!”

In the wild, Andean bears give birth in small, dark dens, an environment keepers recreated for Brienne at the zoo in D.C. She has access to other enclosures, though she will only occasionally venture out during her first few months with cubs. Saffoe said bears spend the months leading up to birth fattening up a bit, so they can spend the first few days of motherhood doing nothing but tending to the cubs.

“We do at points feel sorry for her as we watch her clearly wanting to leave the nest (to drink, eat a little, urinate, defecate, or simply stretch her legs),” Saffoe said in an email. “If they are awake, the cubs start vocalizing and her strong maternal instinct pulls her quickly back to the nest to tend to them. I guess a new mom’s (no matter what species) work is never done!”

On the cam, viewers might see Brienne cuddling, or hear the active and vocal cubs letting out high pitched squeals, an indication that they want to nurse or be repositioned, and a key indicator that the cubs are healthy.

Hibernating fat bears are complex. They may hold lessons for human health.

But don’t expect to see much of the cubs at first.

As adults, male Andean bears can grow to weigh between 300 and 350 pounds (Quito weighs about 330 pounds and Brienne, about 200). But the cubs, which emerge practically bald, toothless and blind, only weigh about 10 to 18 ounces at birth. They don’t take first steps, or even open their eyes, until they’re about four-to-six weeks old.

So, for now it’s mostly nursing and quality time with mom. Keepers said they’re excited to learn more about their personalities as they grow.

Will they be curious and daring like Brienne? Or quiet and reserved like Quito? Maybe they’ll be a combo of both, or perhaps, uniquely their own.

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