Visitors to the Big Bear Alpine Zoo are always drawn to our Grizzly Bear exhibit, which houses Mama Tutu and her two cubs, Harley and Ayla. This family has made our zoo their home since 1996, and the story of how they came to live here is really amazing.
We believe the female grizzly, now named “Tutu”, was born in the Wyoming wilderness in 1984. There is no documentation of her early years. In 1988 wild fires ravaged the region, and much of the animal population was left hungry and homeless. The young grizzly was first captured while eating grass seed that had been piled by the side of a road for re-seeding. Pepper spray, as aversion training, was used to scare her off. She went back into the forest, and was not seen again until 4 years later, when it was reported that a female Grizzly Bear was frequenting campgrounds and bluff charging people in the North Fork area of Wyoming. This time she was captured, radio collared, and released. She also now had a name – Bear number 163. She was radio tracked, but no further conflicts were reported until 1994, when she broke into a lodge and “stole” a bag of grain. Pepper spray was once again used, but she returned to the area the very next day. She was once again captured and relocated to a less-populated area further north. By late fall, she had returned to the area and was once again visiting lodges and camp grounds, bluff charging guests and employees. She now had 2 young cubs with her. All 3 bears were again captured and, this time, they were relocated to Montana. Pepper spray and rubber bullets were no longer effective as a deterrent.
She, along with her cubs, exhibited similar behavior in Montana, and they became victims of the “three strikes” law. Under this rule, bears who continue to frequent human areas are given only 3 chances to return to the wild, and bear 163 had just run out of chances. Game wardens worried that she had lost her fear of humans, and was obviously conditioned to seek food in lodge areas, campgrounds, and other populated places. All 3 bears were captured for the final time in 1995, and they were temporarily moved to a zoological facility in Washington. This was to be only a temporary home, and they were scheduled to be euthanized on March 1st, 1996, if a permanent home could not be found. The future of this Grizzly family looked bleak.
Don Richardson, the curator of the zoo at that time, heard of the bear’s plight, and wondered if the zoo could help them. He contacted the Friends of the Moonridge Zoo (now the Friends of the Big Bear Alpine Zoo) to see if we could do anything. A campaign to raise money for relocating the bears to Big Bear was begun, and with the generous support from the Big Bear area merchants, contractors, residents, and supporters leading the way, donations sky rocketed. People from all over the United States supported the bears, and enough money was raised to get them a new home.
In 1996, the Grizzlies came to their new “home for life” at the Moonridge Animal Park (now the Big Bear Alpine Zoo). The Inland Empire Chapter of Harley Davidson owners played a crucial role in raising money and donating labor to build the new enclosure for the grizzly family. They were given the opportunity to name the male cub, and they chose the name “Harley”. Ayla, the female cub, was named by zoo keepers.
Flash Forward: Our Grizzly family continues to thrive and delight visitors of the zoo. Harley and Ayla have both grown to normal sized grizzlies, both much bigger than their Mother. Mama Tutu will always be small, probably because she was undernourished as a young bear. They play in their pool, lounge in the sun, and enjoy their favorite foods. When they play, their fierce growling and roaring cause’s visitors to run from other parts of the zoo to see what the commotion is all about. In the fall, they dig a den where they spend time resting during the winter. They do not hibernate, but go into a state of torpor during the winter and are much less active. One very interesting note is that Grizzly Bears are solitary in the wild. Cubs normally stay with their Mother for about 2 years, and the females keep to themselves except during mating season. Ours is the only family of Grizzly Bears in California, and one of two in the entire United States.