Tom Ness is nearing the end of his eighth year at the Minnesota Zoo, after working for about a decade at a zoo in South Dakota. He grew up in Pipestone, in southwest Minnesota, and now oversees the Minnesota Trail at the zoo, site of the opening recently of a striking new life-like exhibit featuring three orphaned black bear cubs. He was interviewed by staff writer David Peterson.
Q Why take up zoology?
A In high school I had no idea what to do -- maybe a high school teacher -- and then I wound up doing a summer job at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls and met the zookeepers and was hooked.
Q Were you drawn to particular animals?
A I started with reptiles, especially snakes, in college, and since then have moved more to mammals, especially African and Asian primates. I supervise the tropics area here as well as the Minnesota Trail.
Q How do bears compare with other species you work with?
A They are very intelligent, playful, they interact so much, they make you think. They're fun to work with. They remind me of raccoons, which are very intelligent, too. When we remodeled the trail, raccoons were probably our biggest challenge, because they get into everything. On the Minnesota Trail, my favorites are probably raccoons, wolverines and bears, with lynx and wolves close behind.
Q What do you mean by "challenge?"
A If you're familiar with the raccoon exhibit, it looks like a cabin with a deck, it has a partial roof with shingles, and they went up and started pulling shingles off. They took the smoke alarm in the ceiling apart ... You fix one thing and think you've solved it, and they find another way to get around it. They constantly are thinking about how to one-up you.
Q Tell me about these three bears and their background.
A They arrived as a group, having all been orphaned near the Leech Lake area of northern Minnesota in 2010. They have been here now almost two years, off-exhibit all that time. But we knew the exhibit was coming and the DNR had bears -- they average one to four orphans per year, but the prior year they'd had only one -- and it's harder to introduce them to one another if they haven't been together as cubs, so we had the three that year and just chose to take them all.
Q Do you know what happened to make them orphans?
A No. It could be a sick mom weakened by nursing. Bears can abandon their cubs for a lot of reasons. The moms can be hit by cars, and it's sometimes hunting. But in this case they weren't orphaned during hunting season.
Q In confining them this way, do you feel you've saved their lives?
A The state can and does try and work with orphans and release them, and that has succeeded. The bears have survived for some period of time. But I'm not sure it always succeeds. A lot of times in other states they are euthanized if there isn't a home for them.
Q What was it like for them during the two years' wait?
A Their first pen was more temporary, less dynamic than what they have now. As they were cubs, the keepers spent time keeping them active. There were trees to climb, though the hort crew [plant folks] wasn't thrilled by what they did to the trees.
Q What is life like for them off exhibit?
A There's three holding pens, completely inside and well protected from severe weather. If the bears are grumpy, we can separate them, although they now get along so well, they don't like to be separated. They have an outdoor area with a mulch pit, and the three curl up together in two feet deep of solid mulch. There's another pool for them [as there is in the exhibit itself], so they can swim at night. It's smaller than the exhibit space, but a decent size.
Q Given bears' large territories in the wild, is it humane to pen them up this way?
A The only reason they have large territories in the wild is that they need it to survive. If they go to places with a lot of food, like salmon streams, a lot of bears stay in a small space and don't need to go so far. If it's acorns and blueberries, they need a bigger area.
Q How can you tell if they are doing well?
A Signs they are not happy include pacing, or looking anxious -- it's hard to describe. Offered food but not eating. Hiding. Cowering. Looking submissive. We aren't seeing any of that. They seem comfortable with people -- even putting their paws on the glass for a better look. They're curious about the little people on the other side of the glass.
Q It looks like you are planting things for them to do, to keep them active.
A There's a lot of stuff in the exhibit, like deadfall, for them to pull apart and eat the bugs. We'll scatter food that they need to search for and find. There's enrichment every day, multiple times a day -- yesterday there was food floating in their pool, yams, apples, grapes, frozen deer hide. When it's hot, we will freeze five-gallon ice pails with frozen food and they will break it apart.
Q You see videos of people actually hanging out with bears. Can you do that here?
A We do not go in with the bears. We want them to remain as wild as possible, so people can see how they'd be in the wild. That's not 100 percent possible. We do provide food, so we are providers of good things to them vs. their being standoffish ... Zoos are finding the more natural it looks, the longer visitors stay, so all zoos are moving toward an immersive feel.
David Peterson • 952-746-3285