Adult bears are mostly solitary animals that don’t go looking for friends. Social skills are learned as cubs, early in life, and one of the fascinating insights that caring for orphaned bears brings with it is witnessing how young cubs make friends. Bringing across the right message to other bears and interpreting behaviour correctly is vital when they are back in the wild. It’s also an important life skill for when they reach sexual maturity at around the age of three and want to mate.
Bear cub friendships at Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter sometimes blossom instantly. More often it takes time, sometimes very long – so long that I had just about given up on little Berbere ever getting anywhere with his crush, Mimosa. He spent the better part of February and March trying to impress beautiful and aloof Mimosa, strutting, sprinting, climbing, and waving his paws at her. But all he ever received for his efforts were bored looks from her and sighs from me.
But what tiny Berbere lacks in body size, he makes up for with determination and curiosity. He shifted his focus from Mimosa to Spirit, a very laid-back cub (one could almost say phlegmatic) who arrived at the shelter in December after almost freezing to death. Mimosa accepted Spirit as a buddy, if not close friend fairly quickly. Befriending her buddy probably wasn’t Berbere’s cunning ploy to win Mimosa’s heart, though who can say for sure? The more time I spend looking after bears, the more I wonder.
I just noticed that Berbere stopped his wild sprints and swaggering walk, and kept inching his way closer to Spirit every day. Bears tell each other how close is too close: Spirit ducked his head, and folding back his ears began to moan a warning with pouty lips. Berbere answered with the same body language and moan, and the two began swaying backward and forward with stuttered moans, keeping the space between them.
Bears have very expressive lips that are quite the mood indicator, I find. An unhappy or slightly upset bear will stick out the front of his upper lip, literally making a long face. If the bear is feeling more strongly upset and is becoming defensive, the bottom lip will also stretch out to blow a warning huff.
Over a couple of weeks, Spirit and Berbere got past their long-lipped stand-offs and began closing the distance between them in small increments. Did Spirit finally give in to Berbere’s persistent badgering for the sake of peace? I never saw Spirit initiate contact with Berbere, but one day I came into the enclosure and found the two carefully testing if they could play together. Preserving personal space is important to bears, and they will use things like trees as a safety buffer. Berbere and Spirit’s first play session looked appropriately awkward: keeping a post squarely between them so neither one could come too close, they played a very gentle game of peekaboo and paw swatting, and thus became friends.
Now that Berbere has been tagging along with Spirit, Mimosa began to pay him more attention – though in an entirely self-serving way. When Berbere scores a tasty piece of fish, guess who ambles over and steals it from him without him protesting? Mimosa. But food stealing or sharing led to playing, and finally Berbere’s dream came true: he now shares a den with Spirit and his beloved Mimosa.
I’m not too sure how thrilled the two other bears are about this latest development, but Berbere seems in heaven that after all this time without his mom and siblings he finally has somebody to snuggle with.