Wellington Zoo has spoken out in solidarity after a Chinese zoo had to reassure visitors its sun bears weren’t just humans wearing bear suits.
Videos of one of the bears at the Hangzhou zoo went viral recently due to the oddly human-like look of the bear, which was standing on its hind legs.
The videos prompted the zoo to put out a statement denying claims the bears were just “men in costumes”.
Now Wellington mammal keeper Holly McDonald has explained some of the characteristics that can make sun bears seem so human-like.
“In the video, that sun bear, with the behaviour it was presenting to everyone, that can actually be quite a normal behaviour for sun bears,” she told the Herald.
It was common for sun bears to stand and walk on their hind legs, particularly if they wanted to get a better look at something, she said.
Wellington Zoo’s sun bear, 16-year-old Sasa, can at times be seen wandering around on her hind legs while trying to look at enrichment the keepers have placed high up in her habitat, or while trying to get a better view of her surroundings.
“When the bears are sat down and still, they look quite stocky, they don’t look peculiar,” McDonald said.
“I think it’s more how we perceive them. It looks quite bizarre to us. [Sasa] will walk backwards on her hind legs, so it is a bit bizarre.”
Folds of skin on the bear’s back also made some question if it was just a person in a badly-fitted costume, but McDonald said sun bears usually had extra folds of skin.
“That is really natural for sun bears, they have the baggy skin . . . it’s a form of protection.”
It also made them more mobile when they were climbing and manoeuvring through the forest.
“It really helps them with their arboreal lifestyle and helps them navigate their habitat.”
McDonald said sun bears were curious animals. Sasa spent much of her time at the top of her climbing equipment watching work being carried out at the recently-opened snow leopard habitat.
Sun bear numbers around the world are decreasing and one of the biggest risks to the species is deforestation.
McDonald wanted everyone to know they could look out for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo on any wood-based products to know the product was sourced sustainably. This included things such as toilet paper and pencils.
The logo is international.
“If everyone does their bit and looks for sustainable products it can actually have a huge impact,” she said.
In the meantime, McDonald wanted to reassure that it was normal for sun bears to look the way they did.
“It’s very normal behaviour, even if it catches you off guard. I promise you it’s not a person in a suit.”
Melissa Nightingale is a Wellington-based reporter who covers crime, justice and news in the capital. She joined the Herald in 2016 and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.