Orphaned grizzly bear cubs adapting to new home

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GRIZZLY BEAR cubs Nita (left) and Nova are settling into their new home at the Maryland Zoo after they were found orphaned near St. Ignatius in September. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo)

Having survived a tragedy of storybook proportions, two orphaned grizzly bear cubs from the Flathead Indian Reservation are settling into their new home at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and gaining quite a following in the process.

On Friday, the bears made national news when they were named Nova and Nita through an online poll that drew about 6,000 votes.

“They have really blossomed,” Erin Cantwell, the zoo’s mammal collection manager, said. “Their true personalities have come out.”

It’s a positive turn of events for the sisters, which were found starving near St. Ignatius in September. After watching the cubs forage alone for several days, wildlife biologists with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes decided to mount a rescue.

Their mother was found later with severe shotgun wounds to her face and was euthanized.

The cubs were taken to the Montana Wildlife Center in Helena, where the smaller bear, now named Nita, was treated for a bullet wound in her side.

While the bears were nursed back to full health, officials determined they were too young to be released into the wild.

After a nationwide search, the cubs were relocated to the East Coast in December, becoming the first grizzly bears at the Maryland Zoo in its 140-year history.

Cantwell said zoo personnel were concerned at first at how the cubs would handle the months of turmoil.

“Obviously they had a pretty traumatic beginning to life,” Cantwell said. “But, because they had each other, they tolerated the changes much better than I expected.”

Since being put on public display in late February, Cantwell said the bears have regained their natural swagger.

“I think they had enough time with mom to understand they are grizzly bears,” Cantwell said. “They are pretty destructive.”

Cantwell said these playful antics have invigorated zoo staff, as well as other animals. She said the cubs’ neighbor, a 20-year-old female polar bear, was immediately intrigued by the youngsters.

“It seems to have sparked some new life into her,” she said.

Now about one year old, Cantwell said Nova and Nita delight visitors with displays of jaw chomping, mock charges and other impressive acts. Cantwell said Nova in particular engages with visitors for hours on end.

“She seems just as interested in people as they are in her,” she said.

With the bears on permanent loan from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Cantwell said the zoo is looking forward to watching them reach adulthood.

“We hope to be able to keep them here as long as we can,” she said.

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