By DEBORAH GATES
The Daily Times of Salisbury
SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — It’s purely coincidental, say zoo organizers, that “Chaska” arrives at the Salisbury Zoological Park in time for Mother’s Day.
The 3-year-old Andean bear, on loan from the Buffalo Zoo by the way of the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, is the second bear and latest edition to the zoo family in Salisbury that boasts an estimated 250 animals.
Chaska was officially introduced on Thursday at a special zoo ceremony that attracted dozens of visitors, including local government and heritage officials.
Spectators oohed and aahed as Chaska hung out on a high branch of a towering tree inside the bear exhibit, then climbed down to snack on a bamboo stick. Her mate apparent, a 20-year-old Andean bear named Gritto, paced nearby in a restricted area — impatiently waiting, or at least zoo officials hope, to mate with the new girl in town.
“Just because we put them together, doesn’t mean they will do what we want them to do,” said Ann Konopik, acting zoo director in Salisbury. “Mating season is early spring. But it was a coincidence we got her here on this date. I wouldn’t expect any cubs until the following winter after this one, maybe by 2015.”
In the meantime, 160-pound Chaska and 300-pound Gritto are literally sniffing each other out. It shouldn’t be long, Konopik says, before the two are rubbing noses.
“She can see him, and they smell each other,” Konopik said. “Gradually, they will increase their visibility of each other. He’ll be spending more time communicating with her.”
Mating is crucial for Andean, or spectacled, bears. According to observers of the threatened species, Andean bears are vulnerable, with about only 2,000 remaining in their natural South American habitat. According to news accounts, only three litters of the species were born in North American zoos in the past six years.
Typically black or dark brown in color with patches of white or beige on their faces, female Andean bears reach maturity by about age 3, Konopik said. On that note, 20-year-old Gritto is far from being a senior citizen, and is “still (sexually) viable,” she said.
Chaska replaces Poopsie, one of the oldest Andean bears in the world. Poopsie died about two years ago. The successful mating of Chaska and Gritto would aid a replenishment initiative of the Andean Bear Species Survival Plan in which the Salisbury Zoological Park participates, Konopik said.
Chaska’s arrival coincides with this weekend’s coming out of two of her siblings born in December at the National Zoo, Konopik said.
Laura Mitchell, who represents the Salisbury City Council on the Salisbury Zoo Commission, attended Chaska’s coming out party Thursday with a sigh of relief.
“(Gritto’s) been two years alone, and we’re glad he now has companionship,” Mitchell said. “This also is a new reason to visit the zoo. I really appreciate that she’s here.”
The bears are primarily vegetarians, and dine on a mixture of bear biscuits, fruit and vegetables, Konopik said. Chaska eats about 15 cups a day, while Gritto’s portion is a bit larger.
David and Victoria Baker welcomed the new bear exhibit Thursday with their 3-year-old daughter, Senna, and 2-year-old son, Noah.
“We were looking at the same old bear until it died,” David Baker said. “And that’s been ever since I was (my children’s) age.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)