That’s Not a Black Bear

This summer, the Zoo introduced a new resident into the American black bear habitat at Oklahoma Trails! Can you guess what animal it might be? Here’s a hint… it’s not a black bear! In fact, this animal is red, small and shares a common natural habitat with bears Woody, Maynard and Sammy’s wild counterparts. Their new habitat-mate is a red fox named Zinc. 

The Purpose Behind Multi-Species Environments

Multi-species environments provide dynamic and highly interactive experiences for both our animals and guests. All living organisms exist in communities made up of different plants and animals, and our job is to create natural experiences by combining species in appropriate ways.  Our staff considers many factors when creating habitats for our animals.  This includes designing their habitat to feature elements from their native regions.  Our goal is to provide a stimulating environment that will enrich the animals through species interactions, while allowing our visitors to observe natural interactions and behaviors.  Rather than focusing on one species, these bio-communities help to tell stories, which make for a more realistic, natural experience for our animals. 

The Integration Process

You may be wondering how we began to integrate a red fox into our black bears’ world. Well, it was a slow and steady process because the animals, themselves, controlled the introduction. The first step was to match the animals’ varying personalities – similar to an interview with a potential roommate.  Our team observed and evaluated our animals’ behavior to ensure they would be compatible before moving forward with the integration process. Once this portion of the process proved successful, we began giving Zinc access to his own space located beside the black bears habitat. This move provided all four animals with the opportunity to see, smell and hear one another within their own territory. 

While this slow introduction continued, our caretaker team began helping Zinc to learn about his new environment. This included teaching him where to return to at night. Because Oklahoma’s weather can be unpredictable, it’s crucial that each of our animals are trained to “recall” to their inside dens – ensuring their safety. We often use sound cues to communicate to our animals that we’d like them to come inside. This behavior can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to train.  Luckily, Zinc was an eager student and understood his training quickly.  By the time his training was complete, our behavior observations indicated that it was now time to allow the animals to interact together.   

The following day, we began by allowing our fox access to the habitat first. Because it was such a large space to explore, we chose to give him an ample amount of time to investigate his surroundings. Once he became comfortable, the bears entered the habitat one-by-one, and just like we’d predicted through our observations, our new family proved to be calm and comfortable around one another.  

By providing an observational opportunity with Zinc, Maynard, Woody and Sammy’s situation, our guests can truly understand how each species fills a particular niche in the environment.  This complex habitat is beneficial for both species as they continue to coexist together through natural, social interactions.  

– Kim Leser, curator of behavior training, enrichment and Children's Zoo

Photo: Rick Miyajima, animal caretaker

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