Fresno zoo's new bear: shy, but with rock-star look

The Fresno BeeDecember 24, 2013 

bear

Johnny, or Rajani depending who you ask, is the new sloth bear at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The 7-year-old bear went on display Saturday, but he stayed in the rear of the enclosure and didn't make his public debut until he felt like it on Monday. He is taking over the space of the iconic Betsy the grizzly bear, who died this year after more than 30 years at the Fresno zoo. Sloth bears are native to South Asia and eat mostly insects and fruit.

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Heeere's Johnny! Well, sort of.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo's new South Asian sloth bear, Johnny, is now on display, but he he is taking his time to investigate his new home.

Johnny went into his enclosure Saturday, but kept a low profile and didn't make his first public appearance until Monday. Perhaps he had stage fright and couldn't handle the burden of taking over a space once occupied by Betsy, the popular grizzly bear, who died in August after more than 37 years at the Fresno zoo. She was euthanized after long-term health problems.

"He was a little nervous the first few days," said Dan Subaitis, the zoo's general curator. "He paced and seemed worked up. We just let him feel it out."

Johnny is 7 years old and weighs 300 pounds. He stands more than 6 feet tall on his hind legs and has the coiffure of a '90s glam rock star.

He strolled outside occasionally Tuesday, standing on his hind legs exposing the white spot on his chest -- a characteristic of Asian bears, who otherwise have dark, fuzzy features.

Johnny's enclosure was refurbished with climbing trees, a refinished swimming pool and new plants to allow him to feel more at home .

At his previous residence, the Fort Worth Zoo, Johnny's enclosure had a waterfall that likely obscured much of the noise he hears now, possibly elevating Johnny's nervousness, Subaitis explained.

To lure him outside Monday, zookeepers ringed Johnny's outer enclosure with crickets and other treats a sloth bear could appreciate. He decided to get a snack while exploring his new home.

Asian sloth bears are nocturnal and reclusive in their native India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. They range from as small as 120 pounds for females to 310 pounds for large males.

Sloth bears were the model for "Baloo," the carefree bear character in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," and have a reputation for being "obnoxiously loud," Subaitis said.

Asian sloth bears have long, curved claws that allow them to easily scale trees. Those claws also allow them to excavate for their favorite insects -- ants and termites -- and they also are known for attacking beehives and also eating grubs, beetles and fresh fruit.

Johnny is expected to get a female mate from the St. Louis Zoo to share his lair in 2014, said Scott Barton, the zoo's director.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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