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Omaha zoo finds its blind bear a new home

October 6, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A blind black bear is getting a second chance at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s safari park.

Starsky and fellow black bear Hutch were taken from a private owner, who was keeping the bears illegally as pets in southeast Nebraska back in 2006. When the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission confiscated the bears, they sought the help of the zoo not only to help capture them, but to give them a new home.

Starsky found his first new life in Bear Canyon, where he lived with his buddy Hutch for a decade. But in recent years, the health of both bears declined.

Starsky eventually lost both of his eyes to glaucoma. Then in January 2017, one year after Starsky went blind, Hutch died from complications due to mesothelioma.

As the zoo began to clear out Bear Canyon to make room for a new sea lion exhibit earlier this year, Starsky was the zoo’s last remaining black bear. One by one, the tenants of Bear Canyon found new homes.

Everyone except for Starsky.

“He’s a little bit on the older side, and with his eye issues, we didn’t think he’d make a real attractive candidate for other zoos,” said Dan Cassidy, the zoo’s vice president of animal management. “Plus, we were worried if he goes to another institution, will he be able to find his way around?”

Left without a home for Starsky, the zoo considered euthanizing him. But a solution was found down the road in Ashland.

At the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, an old wooded 1.5-acre limestone quarry is home to two overweight black bear sisters, Licorice and Cinnabuns.

The first thought: Maybe Starsky could shack up with them.

But the ladies probably wouldn’t welcome a new roommate, Cassidy said, at least not until after getting used to him in a controlled setting. But there might be room for a little apartment nearby.

So park staff earlier this year built a special pen, cut from a section of the existing bear area. Now, the 473-pound Starsky trots about the limestone forest in a fenced-in pen about two-thirds the size of his hangout in Bear Canyon, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

He’s already taking to his new life there. And staff have come up with creative ideas to keep up with the blind bear’s shots and examinations in ways that don’t revolve around visual-based training.

Keepers use a sponge-stuffed PVC tube sprayed with beaver musk to guide his movements. Starsky responds to “sit,” ″up,” ″paw,” ″paws down” and other commands, meant to present different body parts for health examinations.

When he nails a command, there’s a short whistle and he gets a chunk of something tasty such as pork roast. Once he’s done, keepers lob a watermelon into his exhibit, and off he goes.

He has settled in well to his new pen, and it’s almost time to test the waters with the lady bears.

Bears tend to become less active in cooler weather, Cassidy said. That may present an opportunity to open the gates and let Starsky intermingle with Licorice and Cinnabuns this fall or winter.

And even if it doesn’t work out and Starsky lives alone, interacting with the ladies only through a fence, Cassidy said he still feels like the zoo did the right thing.

“We still feel like it’s the good alternative to euthanizing him, which is what we would have had to do, ultimately.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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