Animals Get New Homes While Zoo Waits To Move

There’s the “Raven Haven” and “Raccoon Saloon.” New climbing structures for the snow leopards and perches for bald eagles and bobcats.

Even as Big Bear Alpine Zoo anticipates moving to a new home, its residents have been getting new digs at their current one. All around the 2.5 acre park guests can see changes, freshly spruced up enclosures that create a more natural environment for the animals.

All part of an emphasis on animal enrichment brought to the zoo by curator Bob Cisneros, who arrived in Big Bear last year after working for 21 years at the San Diego Zoo. Raccoon Saloon at Big Bear Alpine Zoo

When guests saddle up to the Raccoon Saloon they see six masked bandits scurrying about their enclosure decked out with wagon wheels and western look. There’s logs designed to encourage climbing and traversing, behavior that the animals would exhibit in the wild.

To encourage more natural behavior, a patch of donated turf is placed in the corner that the raccoons love, largely because there’s warms or other treats planted inside. One starts digging and others immediately come to join in, all foraging just like they do in nature.

Raven Haven is another example. Plywood was put up in the back to block a cement view and then painted to look like the back of an old barn, perfect raven habitat. Multiple perches with levels and a walk-through log encourage activity.

Something the famous mountain lions needed more of. “They were overweight and liked to sleep too much,” Cisneros said of the three cougars, which came to the zoo as kittens that had to be bottle-fed after their mother was killed.

So staff started hiding the food around their enclosure, forcing the lions to get up and look for it. “With limited space to increase surface area of an enclosure you have to build up,” Cisneros said.
Now they weigh around 120 pounds each and they need big toys. Like the bench right in front made from recycled fire hose, donated by firefighters staging across the street at Bear Mountain fighting last summer’s Summit Fire.

Then there’s Pooh bear. The black bear scheduled to be euthanized after he raided a honey farm was rescued by Big Bear Alpine Zoo and had since started packing on the pounds. So in his enclosure keepers drilled holes in logs and crammed in peeled oranges, wedged in tight to for Pooh to work at getting them. “The next day he had eaten the pulp but left the orange peel,” Cisneros said.

The park sports one of the largest timber wolf populations in captivity with nearly a dozen animals in three distinct packs. Sadly one of the wolves born at the park a few years ago, Legend, died of cancer. When the wolves start howling it’s downright bone-chilling, and they don’t do it just after dark either. One recent morning the sandhill cranes made a flap that got the coyotes going and started the wolves howling as the park erupted in sound.

Rare Himalayan snow leopards Asha and Shanti already had a nice enclosure with pond and rocks to play on after arriving in Big Bear a couple years ago. But cats are natural climbers so the zoo put in more structures and limbs to encourage climbing, plus a hanging log to bat.

Guests love to see the snow leopards, which came to Big Bear from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, but the cats have trouble looking back. Both were born with a relatively rare congenital eye anomaly called multiple ocular coloMountain Lions at Big Bear Alpine Zooboma and have had their right eyes removed to prevent infection and other complications.

That doesn’t keep them from pouncing on perceived prey but it does eliminate them from breeding for the Species Survival Program into which they were born, which aims to propagate endangered species. Both are welcome additions after snow leopard Milo passed away of an aggressive form of mouth cancer that afflicts cats in captivity. Another snow leopard at the zoo, Ivan, also passed from the disease.

With over 150 residents among some 85 species, there’s a lot of enclosures to consider. One of only two alpine zoos in the country—the other is in Colorado Springs—Big Bear’s is also one of only two zoos in California home to the state symbol, the grizzly bear.

At one point Big Bear Valley was flush with grizzlies, but by early after the turn of the century all were gone.  Big Bear became home to three grizzlies when a marauding mother with two cubs raided one too many camp sites in Yellowstone and faced a death sentence. In a great grassroots fundraising drive bricks were sold for the front them a home.

Of course, the ultimate objective for every animal that comes into the zoo is for it to not find a home there but instead be  rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Bears, bald eagles and more have all gotten a second shot at life thanks to Big Bear Alpine Zoo. Those who have injuries that prevent them from being released— or have been impacted by humans—end up as “ambassadors for us,” Cisneros said.

Daily animal presentations at noon in the amphitheater allow guests to meet zoo critters up close. Plus there’s animal enrichment programs four times daily.

Big Bear Alpine Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., till 5 p.m. beginning Memorial Day weekend. Admission is $12, $6 ages 3-10/60 and over, under three free. The zoo is at 43285 Goldmine Dr. across from Bear Mountain. Call (909) 584-1299.

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