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Polar Bear Introduction with Henry and Ganuk

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On May 5th, 2016 we introduced Ganuk and Henry to each other for the very first time. It took seven months of preparation and hard work to get to this day but it was well worth it. While seven months might seem like a long time to get ready to introduce two bears to each other, there were many factors we had to consider prior to the introduction.

Henry first arrived at the Habitat on October 7th, 2015 from Queensland, Australia. For Henry, everything was suddenly new to him and there were many things for him to get accustomed to such as: environment, food, keepers and smells. There were some upgrades being done in and around our Bear Holding building, which added another thing to that list. We wanted to give Henry enough time to adjust and to be comfortable with his new home before we tried to introduce him to his new buddy. When Henry arrived here at the Habitat he weighed 578 lbs. As he become more familiar with his new foods and environment, Henry gained weight and on the day of the introduction he weighed 641 lbs!

Ganuk at 6 years old is a sexually mature male whereas Henry is not. Male polar bears reach sexual maturity at the age of 5 or 6. Breeding season lasts typically from October to May with increased levels of testosterone. Ganuk is not being bred and with his already higher than normal levels of testosterone, our usually laid-back, easy going bear can become a little more unpredictable and aggressive at that time of year. We wanted to wait until Ganuk was out of breeding season until we did the introduction.

As keepers we spend every day with the bears observing them. Because we spend so much time with them we have developed a relationship with both Ganuk and Henry and are able to detect some of the subtle changes in their behaviours. Over the last seven months we had many talks with other facilities that had introduced male polar bears, getting as much advice from them as possible. We also enlisted the help of a bear behaviourist who came up from San Diego, California to work with us in the days leading up to and after the introduction. The polar bear community is quite small so we are lucky enough to be able to work with a number of wonderful people who were all able to lend their help and advice during our preparations for the big day.

Many people have asked us if it is natural for male polar bears to live together. The answer is yes and no. During the summer and fall months in the wild you will find male polar bears living together along the coasts waiting for the sea ice to form again. This period is called “walking hibernation” – a time when polar bears are not able to hunt, relying on their fat reserves. Some will walk the coast looking for bird eggs or small berries to eat. Most males will lay around together in the shade or spar (wrestle) with each other. Once the ice begins to form and the bears begin to make their way back out onto the sea ice, they start to separate. The males will spend the winter months as solitary animals hunting seals and if they are of breeding age, looking for a female. Males can become aggressive towards each other when resources are limited or there is a female in the area that they are trying to breed with.  We do not have a female at the Habitat and both boys are accustomed to a regimented daily diet, limiting the major competition factors between two males. At the Habitat we try to create as natural an environment as we possibly can for the bears while still being in captivity. In saying this, we will keep in mind the natural behaviour of wild male polar bears in the spring and winter, meticulously observing their behaviours so that we can try not having to separate them.

Once Henry was out of quarantine we moved him to a new bedroom inside bear holding where he was diagonally across from Ganuk’s bedroom. We had a visual barrier up at first between the rooms so they weren’t able to see each other for a little while. Polar bears have a very heightened sense of smell though so they still knew there was another bear around even if they couldn’t see each other just yet. We also put up visual barrier’s around the enclosures so that they wouldn’t be able to see each other through the fences and Viewer’s Building.  In November we took down the visual barrier inside bear holding, although the ones around the enclosures stayed up. In February we moved the bears to bedrooms that are directly across from each other. It was the first time they were able to get a proper look at each other. In March we put Ganuk and Henry in enclosures where they were able to see each other through the fence. All that was left now to do was the introduction. Some facilities do a soft introduction where the bears have limited direct contact to each other, but we felt that this step was unnecessary and could cause unwanted stress.

The day of the introduction seemed to creep up on us. Seven months can go by quite quickly when there is so much to prepare for. Emotions were running high that morning and the air was thick with tension but everyone was prepared for all circumstances both good and bad. I am the newest keeper at the Habitat, having only been here since August 2015. All of my training when it came to bear doors had been to ensure that no matter what, they were always to be kept separate. As the keeper who was responsible for opening the doors to give Ganuk and Henry access to the enclosure that day, it was a very surreal feeling knowing that this was the moment I had not only been trained to avoid, but also the moment we had been working towards since Henry had first arrived.

Henry was the first one out into the enclosure the morning of the introduction. He was given a chance to wander around exploring before Ganuk was given access. When the door opened and Ganuk walked out, Henry was hidden behind a tree walking towards the pool. He noticed Ganuk first and ran over to the pool rocks to get a height advantage over Ganuk. At 3 years old Henry is just over 7ft tall whereas Ganuk is just over 9ft tall. Ganuk looked around the enclosure and saw some town workers with fire hoses around then fence line which isn’t normal for him. He stopped to outside the doors to check them out, then when he saw Henry near the pool, he started loping over towards him. Their first interaction was a greeting; touching noses and chuffing at each other. After that they started sparring in the grass around the pool. The boys reached huge milestones together that day, some of which include sparring, swimming and napping together.

So what will you see the boys doing with their days now that they are together? In the morning the boys have been quite active, after being separated at night, greeting each other as soon as they get access to their enclosure. They usually start sparring in the grass. Once they start getting tired and hot they make their way over to the pool where they go for a swim to cool off. The rest of the day Ganuk and Henry alternate between napping around the enclosure, sparring with each other or swimming together. Some times they will be off doing their own thing, especially as it gets hotter throughout the afternoon. Ganuk might be napping or swimming and Henry might be playing with a barrel somewhere. We still separate the bears at night, giving them both a chance to have a good night’s sleep and rest up for the next day.

Polar bears are naturally curious animals and prior to the introduction both the bears were always interested in what we were doing. They would spend a lot of time inside Bear Holding because they knew we were in there and wanted to be around us. Even if we were walking around the enclosure fences they would stop and look over to see what we were doing, sometimes coming over to the fence to see us. Since we have introduced the two boys to each other, they have been spending less time with us which is a good thing. Now when we walk around the enclosure fences, they hardly seem to notice and they don’t come inside as often to see what we are doing. They have become less reliant on us to keep them stimulated during the day, instead relying on their new buddy.

With boy bears in the same enclosure now we also have to be a little more creative when it comes to making toy enrichments for them. We now make double the enrichments, an exact copy-cat of the original, so that neither bear is denied the enrichment resulting in aggression. Everything now comes in two’s and is made equal for the boys.

Prior to the introduction you may have seen us feeding the bears through the enclosure fence, throwing food onto the pool rocks in the main enclosure of watching the boys finding food throughout their enclosure that we had placed outside for them. Since we have done the introduction we have changed how and when we feed the boys. To avoid food aggression, we separate Ganuk and Henry into their bedrooms inside Bear Holding first and then feed them. Mackerel, moose and watermelon are part of the bears current daily diet. During the day we ensure that both boys are being given the same food items – if one is getting watermelon then they both are.

If over the last couple of week’s, you have visited or phoned the Habitat you may have noticed that our previously known “Meet the Bear or Feed the Bear” has now changed to “Meet the Keeper.” Previously these sessions focused on the bears being fed a small snack or being given a new toy every time, with less emphasis on the natural behaviours of the bears. We have decided to change the way we do the sessions, focusing on the natural behaviours of polar bears, continuing to allow them free choice over what they do with their day, instead of asking them to do something else. During our “Meet the Keeper” talks you will now get the chance to meet either myself or Dylan and chat with us, learning more about Ganuk, Henry and wild polar bears while observing the boys just being themselves.

Ganuk and Henry have been together for a couple weeks now. Every day they continue to amaze us with all that they do together, teaching us more and more about male polar bears. Ganuk has been so patient with Henry and a great mentor to him so far. We expect Henry to continue learning from his older “brother” the more time they spend together. Everything has changed now, not just for the boys but for the keepers as well. All of it is definitely worth it though to see Ganuk and Henry together at last.

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