A Bear-y Merry Groundhog Day at the OKC Zoo

The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is celebrating Groundhog Day in a wild way – with help from 17-year-old grizzly bear brothers, Will and Wiley, who have been official Groundhog Day ambassadors for many years.

While the Zoo is not home to groundhogs – the notable furry face of this special day – it is home to two species of bears, including the grizzly bear and black bear.

Like groundhogs, bears are also in tune with weather changes, qualifying them as an excellent source regarding the status of the changing seasons. This is due in part to the fact that the presence of food resources for bears changes along with the weather. But rather than ‘seeing their shadows’ as Punxsutawney Phil might, the bears have a more obvious way of letting us know their prediction at the Zoo.

Grizzly brothers Will and Wiley, credit Andrea Johnson

At the Zoo, Will and Wiley put their keen senses to work on Groundhog Day by selecting between Winter and Spring themed enrichment, presented to them by their caretakers. Because the grizzly brothers can eat approximately 75 pounds of food each day in the fall, most of their enrichment is food-focused.

In the wild, a bear spends a large majority of its time foraging for food during the warmer months of the year. So, to encourage those natural behaviors at the Zoo, we present the bears’ diet to them in a variety of enriching ways. This includes chopping their food into smaller pieces and scattering them throughout their habitat several times a day to extend the amount of time they spend foraging for food, freezing their food into ice blocks during the summer to challenge them to put more effort into consuming their diet, utilizing different seasonings, and mixing up the cooking temperatures of particular food items. Each of these approaches work to inspire natural foraging behaviors from the bears and keeps them guessing day-to-day. The caregivers like to make the enrichment extra exciting by including many favorite food items, such as mixed nuts, grapes, honey, yogurt, molasses, popcorn and cantaloupe.

Another example of a bear’s weather awareness is an instinct known as hibernation, or deep sleep. In colder months, when some species of bears experience a decline in food availability, their metabolic system changes and their energy levels begin to slow. To prepare for hibernation in the fall months, bears will begin denning and consume more food than usual to store up body fat and. During hibernation, they will use up this extra body fat to live off of, while not losing any muscle. Hibernation is a bear’s way of surviving the winter when food is scarce.

The Zoo’s bears do not hibernate, however, Will and Wiley do begin denning around November each year. The den is large enough to fit both bears comfortably. Denning is an instinctual behavior, and one that we encourage, filling in the den each summer so that they have the opportunity to dig a new one each year. Not only is this great exercise, it also helps to keep their claws in good shape and provides excellent mental stimulation. Once the den is dug out, Will and Wiley will collect leaves, grass, and sticks into piles to move into the den to help make it more comfortable and insulated.

Hibernation is an adaptation that evolved in order for a bear to survive a time period with zero resources. At the Zoo, we offer Will and Wiley food daily, even in the winter. This means that the boys do not need to hibernate. Throughout the winter, Will and Wiley choose to spend most of their time in their den during this time of year, which is very natural.

With Groundhog Day around the corner, we’re hopeful that Will and Wiley will choose to participate in the festivities. Unlike Will and Wiley, the Zoo’s black bears, Maynard and Woody, do not dig dens, so they will be ready to stand-in for the grizzly brothers if they choose to snooze.

This Groundhog Day goes to the bears! Find out Will and Wiley’s prediction, while learning all about the bear species of the world with information and activity stations, ‘Ask A Keeper’ chats and more throughout the event on Sunday, February 2, in the Zoo’s Big Rivers Building. It all begins at 10 a.m. We hope to see you there!

Rachel Sides, carnivore caretaker

-Rachel Sides, carnivore caretaker

Photo credit: Andrea Johnson

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