Zoo Bears Enjoy Weather-Predicting Tradition

Grizzly bear brothers, Will and Wiley, have been predicting the weather on Groundhog Day at the Zoo since shortly after their arrival in 2003. Although not groundhogs, bears are very in tune with the weather and upcoming seasonal changes because the presence of their food resources in the wild also changes with the weather.

Interestingly, this celebration of changing seasons has ancient European origins in which a badger or a sacred bear were part of weather lore and held the place as the weather forecasters rather than a groundhog. The use of a groundhog as a weatherman didn’t start until 1887 in Pennsylvania when an editor of a local newspaper began advertising a local groundhog as the season predictor. The popularity of Groundhog Day increased and became a tradition; Hollywood even made a movie named after this holiday in 1993.

But rather than “seeing their shadows” as Punxsutawney Phil might up north, our Zoo bears have a more obvious and fun way of letting us know their prediction. Just prior to the bears making their prediction, one of our staff members reads a proclamation written several years ago about the history of the bears predicting whether we will have six more weeks of winter, or if spring is just around the corner. Then, Will and Wiley put their keen senses to work. As the bears shift back and forth investigating and indulging in both the winter enrichment and summer enrichment boxes, Zoo representatives will declare the Groundhog Day “winner” as the winter- or summer-themed box that the bears seemed to settle on or devour the most.

Cardboard is some of the bears’ favorite enrichment and they thoroughly enjoy every opportunity to smash, tear, rip up and rub all over any boxes that they are given. Preparing bear-safe enrichment requires more work and careful planning than most people think, as many items are unsafe for the bears. Since the bears usually dive deep into the boxes, the caregivers really like to make the enrichment extra exciting by including many favorite food items, such as mixed nuts, grapes, honey, yogurt, molasses, popcorn and cantaloupe.

As one of the bears’ caretakers, I just enjoy getting to see the boys have a blast with their enrichment, although I may be holding out for spring to come sooner rather than later.

--Rachel Sides, senior animal technician


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