When siblings Dolly, Lou Lou and Koda argue, it’s best to stay clear. The 2-year-old grizzlies can go from calm or agitated to restless or playful in a matter of minutes.
ZooMontana’s senior keeper Krystal Whetham, self-proclaimed “bear mama,” has a pretty good handle on the bears and their changing personalities.
She’s been at the three grizzly cubs’ side since they arrived at the zoo last summer.
“Like siblings, they do fight with each other,” Whetham said. “At dinner, someone will touch someone wrong, and they’ll be vocal — just typical siblings.”
The cubs came to the zoo after their mother was euthanized. The mother and cubs killed a Michigan man and injured two others as they slept at Soda Butte Campground outside Cooke City.
When the cubs arrived, they were underweight and feared humans. Koda, the largest of the three, weighed around 90 pounds, while the two females weighed around 70 pounds.
“They were very untrusting,” Whetham said. “They had just had their world taken out from underneath them. They didn’t understand anything.”
They’ve since gained 100 pounds each.
The cubs spent months in quarantine, a process that ensures that they are parasite-free to protect the rest of the animals in the zoo.
“They come in and are full of tons of gross stuff,” Whetham said. “A lot of stuff that is normal in the wild. You can’t expect them to be parasite-free.”
Over time, the cubs have started to trust Whetham, who to them means one thing.
“They know we mean food,” she said. “The way to a bear is through its stomach.”
The cubs are trained with positive reinforcement using pointers, bells and whistles to get their attention. The keepers have no direct contact with the bears.
“We definitely don’t go in with them,” Whetham said. “They are still dangerous and very strong.”
The three cubs, along with the other two resident bears, know to report back to their enclosure whenever they hear a bell ring.
It usually means dinner.
Each cub eats about 5 pounds of fruits and vegetables a day, a half pound of raw meat and 1 pound of Mazuri, a bear kibble that resembles dog food.
Whetham cuts up 40 pounds of food each day for the five bears.
That doesn’t include the snacks they get throughout the day.
“A lot of times we freeze melons for enrichment,” Whetham said. “If you give a bear one that is thawed, they’ll eat it in two bites. If you freeze it, they could go on it for a half-hour.”
Fruits, vegetables, nuts are tossed around the exhibit so the animals can forage, like they would in the wild.
It’s all about keeping them entertained, which isn’t too tough.
“They are so playful with each other,” Whetham said. “I swear they play tag. There are all three of them, in a line, chasing each other in the exhibit.”
Whetham said she’s unsure how Koda will react to crowds. The most timid of the group, Koda tends to hang out by the door to their enclosure.
To ease all the cubs’ fears, she’s let them be in the exhibit for several mornings over the past weeks, introducing them to groups of people in a more controlled way.
The first groups to see the cubs included Girl Scouts and students of the ZooSchool preschool.
The next step in the distant future could be introducing them to Bruno and Ozzie, the other bears at ZooMontana.
“We would have to introduce them with each other; it would almost have to be an independent meeting,” Whetham said. “If all three were to go out together, they would probably gang up on them.”
That prospect depends on the cubs’ personalities as they grow older.