This bear masterminded 2 St. Louis Zoo escapes. Now he’s off to the Lone Star State

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After a four-year-old Andean bear escaped from the Saint Louis Zoo for the second time in February, staff are arranging a transfer to a zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

Gladys Porter Zoo will be Ben’s new home, and the Andean bear habitat onsite has a moat. Ben previously escaped his enclosure at the Saint Louis Zoo by breaking through steel mesh. Staff made adjustments to the habitat after the first escape Feb. 7, but the bear was able to slip out again last month.

“We used 450-pound tensile-strength clips to hold it closed, as well as an 1,800-pound cable, and even then, he was smart enough to figure out how to undo it,” Regina Mossotti, vice president of animal care at the Saint Louis Zoo, told the News-Democrat.

Andean bears have been recognized for their intelligence, and Ben seems to be particularly smart, even for a member of his species.

“And so with that, it just goes to show how incredibly intelligent Andean bears are, but especially Ben,” Mossotti said.

Andean bear Ben has been at the Saint Louis Zoo for about a year and a half.
Andean bear Ben has been at the Saint Louis Zoo for about a year and a half.

Ben’s transfer will take place in the next few weeks, Mossotti said, but a specific date has not been set yet. It will be a bittersweet trip, as staff will be sad to see him go but glad he will be in a safe environment where he can thrive.

“It’s so funny because we often don’t think of animals as having a personality, but oh my gosh, every single animal has their own unique personality,” Mossotti said. “Ben, he is so playful, he is energetic, our team has just fallen in love with him.”

Ben has been at the Saint Louis Zoo for about a year and a half, and he is on loan from the Queens Zoo, where he was born. He is currently residing in a non-public area of the Saint Louis Zoo, and staff are training him through positive reinforcement to help him become comfortable in a travel crate.

When asked whether the Saint Louis Zoo will host Andean bears in the future, Mossotti said, “We’re gonna evaluate that habitat and figure out what the next steps are for it and the right species to go into that. We haven’t made that decision yet.”

The habitat Ben escaped from has hosted Andean bears for years, Mossotti added, and he was the first to figure out how to break out.

Andean bear conservation

The Andean bear species is considered to be vulnerable to extinction, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Estimates say fewer than 18,000 currently survive in the wild.

Deforestation has been a major threat to Andean bear populations, the Wildlife Conservation Society reports.

“This threat will only worsen in coming years as urban populations continue to rapidly expand throughout the Andes-Amazon region,” the Wildlife Conservation Society website says.

Zoos often work with species survival plans to promote conservation of vulnerable species, and transfers happen pretty regularly for breeding and other conservation interests.

More on the Andean bear

The Andean is the only bear species native to South America, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

The bears grow 5 to 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet at shoulder height. Males typically weigh up to 340 pounds, while average females weigh closer to 180 pounds.

Andeans are also known as “spectacled” bears, as white or cream colored “spectacles” encircle their eyes.

“Andean bears’ thick coats are usually either black or brown, occasionally tinged with red. Each individual spectacled bear has its own distinctive set, or ‘fingerprint,’ of distinct cream or whitish markings on its head, throat and chest,” the Smithsonian website says.

They eat fruit, grasses, berries, small animals and more, and they travel alone outside of breeding season.

The average lifespan of an Andean bear being cared for by humans is about 20 years, but they can live to their late twenties or even early thirties. Their average lifespan in the wild is unknown.