The two sister grizzly bears foraged on Native American tribal grounds not far from the edges of Glacier National Park in Montana with no mama bear in sight. They became orphaned after their mother was shot.

The cubs weren’t going to survive on their own, especially with one having suffered gunshot wounds. After treatment and a three-day road trip across the country in wintry weather, they are making their public debut at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

It’s the first time in its 140-year history that the Baltimore zoo has had grizzly bears.

Mike McClure, the Maryland Zoo’s general curator, said the two are curious about their outdoor yard and spend “a lot of time digging up the mulch, rolling in the grass and exploring the pool.” They are “bear cubs just being bear cubs,” he said.

The two cubs, about 11 months old, arrived at the zoo in late December, but zoo officials said they kept the news quiet so the animals could get used to their environment. The animals spent about 30 days in quarantine and several weeks getting used to zoo life. The zoo’s planned announcement of the two grizzlies then got bumped by news of a giraffe having a 6-foot-tall calf.

The cubs have not been named and the zoo expects to hold a public naming contest soon.

For now, zookeepers have dubbed them Big Bear and Little Bear. Little Bear is slightly smaller than her sister, who outweighs her by about 20 pounds. Little Bear also has a distinctive band of blondish fur around her neck, zookeepers said.

The tale of how the cubs ended up in Maryland starts in western Montana.

In late August, they were seen on the Confederated Salish (Say-lish) and Kootenai (Koot-nee) tribal lands near the Flathead Reservation. The tribe biologist observed the cubs and watched them over several days.

They were “foraging by themselves,” Maryland Zoo officials said, with no mother around. One cub seemed to be in poor health, according to zoo officials.

They were “starving, having not quite learned how to forage for themselves at such a young age,” said Ellen Bronson, a senior veterinarian at the zoo.

The tribe biologist decided they should be captured and cared for. Once caught, in September they were taken to a veterinarian and a wildlife rehabilitation center in Helena, Monanat.

Veterinarians discovered that the smaller cub had been shot in the face, abdomen and hind quarters. The cub’s wounds weren’t severe and she was treated with antibiotics. Their mother was found weeks later with gunshot wounds to her face and had to be euthanized, McClure said. DNA linked the mother bear to the cubs.

“With these cubs, they were so young that they couldn’t be returned to the wild and successfully live,” said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Zoo. “They weren’t old enough to have learned survival skills.”

While they were at the rehabilitation center in Helena, the process began of finding a new home, working with an advisory group and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

An email went out with a basic question: “Does anyone have room for two grizzlies?” A few facilities responded, including the Maryland Zoo.

In December, Maryland officials flew to Helena to help transport the bears, but a blizzard delayed their journey. Once they got on the road, it took three days to get them to Maryland. Officials said they had considered using a cargo plane, but getting one before the busy holiday season proved difficult.

“The weather was getting worse and worse and we didn’t want to wait until after Christmas,” Ballentine said.

After the cubs arrived at the zoo on Dec. 21, they were quarantined and moved to the Polar Bear Watch exhibit to get used to their new environment. Over the winter when the zoo was closed for three days a week, zookeepers got the bears used to the outdoor yard and worked with them away from public view. The bears had to learn to respond when called.

“They have to be trained to come running when you ring a triangle, for example,” Ballentine said. “They have to realize what the cue is and when to come to a certain area.”

Keepers said they still need to get the grizzlies used to their neighbor, a polar bear, in the outside area where their enclosures are about 30 feet apart. For now, they’ll split the day with the grizzlies outside in the morning and the polar bear out in the afternoon. Soon, officials said, they expect all of the bears to be outside at once.

“While the bears know each other is there, they haven’t been adjacent in the exhibit yard, so slowly we have to get both species to realize they’re there,” Ballentine said.

Officials are still looking for who shot the cubs’ mother. The Consolidated Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are offering a reward of up to $4,000 for information that leads to a conviction in the shooting.

“Although no one likes the tragic circumstances that led to the cubs coming here to the zoo, we are pleased that we can offer a permanent home to these sisters,” Maryland Zoo president and chief executive Don Hutchinson said in a statement. “They are being well cared for and we plan to do so for many, many years.”

For a video link of the orphaned grizzly bears’ new home go to: http://wapo.st/2ldcTKy

Two grizzly bear cubs play at the Maryland Zoo. They came there after their mother was shot in Montana and they were orphaned. 

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