As I said in my last blog, we had planned to spend another day at the Albuquerque zoo. This was the first time I had seen any large crowd around an exhibit at this zoo. In the cage was a six month old black bear who was obviously very upset. He kept pacing back and forth and in the cage were three keepers. That in itself was unusual and then as I looked around I saw in the corner of the cage a tiny baby bear, huddled who seemed frightened to death.
One of the keepers was attempting to feed the baby who kept turning away from the food. The keeper said the baby had just been brought in about ten minutes before and I was seeing the beginning of a drama. The keeper kept putting his hands on the baby’s head and on his nose to give it reassurance and he offered it pieces of apple. As he held out the apple, the larger bear, who was named “Black Velvet” bounded over and grabbed all the pieces. Finally when the keeper offered some small fish the baby finally ate. I asked him if they would leave these two together. Were they not afraid that Black Velvet would attack the baby? He said that would already have happened and the fact that nothing happened meant that all would be well. I asked if they would bottle feed the baby. It would still be nursing if it were with its mother. The keeper said they had fed Black Velvet who was smaller than this baby when he first came pablum and baby cereal and this is what they will feed this one. If Black Velvet is any example, that diet is superb. He is not only gorgeous, but also delightfully playful.
After the keeper left, the baby remained in the corner for some time while Black Velvet kept pacing back and forth – like he was not sure he liked the new visitor. After awhile the baby started to eat again. He did not go for the fruit or the carrots, but went for the monkey chow. Then he proceeded to explore the cage. He walked over to the back door- looked at it, crawled up to the top (I wondered whether he would make it down) and very carefully felt his way down the door. He tested the window sill – sat in it. Then he proceeded to explore more of the cage. All this time Black Velvet kept pacing back and forth. Finally the little baby returned to the spot in the corner and resumed his forlorn posture.
Time passed. I could not pull myself away from the exhibit. As I watched, the baby gained more confidence. He started to climb up the front wall. All this time Black Velvet was pacing furiously back and forth. Then the baby came towards Black Velvet who immediately turned the other way. The baby then walked to another part of the cage. A little later they approached each other cautiously – touched noses and then separated again. Then Black Velvet returned to his furious pacing while the baby was lying on a shelf near the top of the cage. Black Velvet also nipped a little at the baby’s feet, but not enough to hurt him.
Periodically Black Velvet stopped his pacing and stood up against the fence. The baby in the meantime fell asleep on the shelf. Later he woke up and as he climbed down Black Velvet eyed him – stopped momentarily – they eyed each other. Then Black Velvet returned to his pacing. The baby now came to the front fence, climbed up and looked at me while Black Velvet kept on pacing. Then Black Velvet stopped, came over to the baby and sniffed him. He then resumed his pacing, but it was now much slower. At this point the baby climbed down to the ground and proceeded to follow Black Velvet. They faced each other. The baby at this point left Black Velvet and returned to the shelf and went to sleep. Black Velvet was obviously much calmer now.
As I was observing, I noticed one of the keepers who had worked with Black Velvet was outside of the cage and in fact was near me. I called him over and asked if he sensed any problems with Black Velvet and the baby. He assured me that everything is fine. We got to talking. He had been in Los Angeles visiting our zoo only three weeks ago and had a meeting with one of the keepers I knew at the zoo. He told me more about Black Velvet. He had been found in Mt. Taylor by some fire fighters. They tried to raise it and when it got to be too much to handle, he was brought to the zoo. Black Velvet was about a month old when brought in.
He told me about this baby. It was found by a ranger. Either the mother abandoned it or she was killed. The ranger bottle fed it and again it got too much for him and it was offered to the Zoo. The baby is much darker than Black Velvet and the keeper told me it will really be black. We discussed the feeding. He said a baby bear is fed three times a day until it is a year old- then only once a day. He said that he will play with Black Velvet for about five minutes after eating. He would never disturb him while eating. He said if he did he would be attacked! He plays only if Black Velvet first comes to him. He also told me that he encourages friendship with the animals – in other words, he works to get their trust. The reason being that even though eventually he would not play with them because they have become adult and dangerous, if they should be sick or hurt, he can get close enough to them to use a blow gun to tranquilize rather than a rifle. The blow gun is not much different than deadening a tooth in a human being. The rifle, however, will tear deep into their skin. It could really hurt them and many times they die from it. He told me he once worked with a rhino who let him wash his eyes out when there was pus in the eye.
While we were chatting, the baby came down from the shelf and Black Velvet started to pace closer in its direction. The baby walked around looking at Black Velvet. The keeper whose name was Jesse, told me that it is feeding time -12:05 PM and he would be going into the cage. I wondered how he would handle the feeding now that Black Velvet would probably want to eat the baby’s portion too. But what he did was this. In one hand he held a large metal bowl which was quite deep and in the other hand two packages of raw meat. He threw the raw meat on the ground and Black Velvet grabbed it. He did not notice the baby’s food at all. As Black Velvet was eating Jesse carried the metal bowl towards the baby who instead of eating as I expected, flew up to his perch on the shelf- as if he was afraid to eat.
Jesse followed him and put the bowl on the shelf and the baby really dipped into it, and ate like there was no tomorrow! I asked Jesse what was in the bowl and he said “Pablum, monkey chow and vegetables” By now Black Velvet had finished and true to form came over and started to play with Jesse, standing up his full height and grabbing him as Jesse danced around keeping his arms above him –the reason for that he said was because the use of his arms would frighten Black Velvet. Black Velvet then playfully started to nip at his shirt and I could see that the nip could be actually dangerous. Jesse said he won’t be able to play with Black Velvet much more. Jesse told me he will become dangerous within a couple of months – more frightening than the bite he said, are the claws which are powerful.
Watching this drama with Black Velvet and the baby was so reminiscent to me of my experience with Suck-a-toe when he first met Missy, his girlfriend—how frightened he was and how overtime a beautiful relationship developed. For my readers who don’t know my story, Suck-a-toe was an infant De Brazza monkey at the Los Angeles zoo whose father had tried to kill him and who had been rejected by his mother. I first saw him when he was two days old in an incubator at the children’s zoo. He was sucking his toe and for some reason connected with me. The nurses who took care of him told me they could tell by his actions that he thought I was his mother. Meeting him changed the direction of my life and led to two books that I published. One was called “Suck-a-toe”, published in 1980 and a book on my life called “The Monkey Lady, Laura Glusha which has just been published this year of 2015.
The experience in Albuquerque was much more than I expected. Learning about the American Indian Culture was a tremendous eye opener for both my husband and me, and the zoo which I had been told I would not enjoy offered me this amazing drama of the meeting of Black Velvet and the baby bear. It is true that the Albuquerque zoo needed upgrading, but there was a lot of support for it among the population. I just checked online and they have become a major zoo. I knew it would happen because the people were so dedicated.
We are now on our way to Tucson and the Arizona Senora Desert Museum.