Zoo says goodbye to Malayan sun bear Vivian

May 13, 2016 - 2:18pm

Calm, confident old-timer slept on a waterbed and had a Pooh-like love of honey

Vivian, a beloved Malayan sun bear who was among the oldest of her species, was humanely euthanized at the Oregon Zoo Thursday after a decline related to her advanced age, officials said.

Like many of the zoo's residents, Vivian lived far beyond the median life expectancy for her species. At 30, she was the second-oldest sun bear in any zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and she was among the oldest anywhere in the world. In 2012, she was included in an Oregonian article about elderly Oregon Zoo inhabitants that highlighted ways keepers and veterinary staff care for animals approaching the end of life.

The median life expectancy for female sun bears in zoos is 23, according to AZA statistics, but in the wild, biologists say, it is much lower — especially given the environmental pressures now facing this threatened species — and bears seldom live past the age of 25.

"We have a lot of older animals here, and our staff has a much-deserved reputation for providing great specialized geriatric care," said Dr. Don Moore, zoo director. "Veterinarians, nutritionists and keepers all work together, and come up with some innovative ways to give the animals a great quality of life throughout their golden years. Two years ago, they even got Vivian a waterbed to sleep on to help ease her arthritic joints. To the people who care for her, Vivian was family — this a very sad time for everyone who knew her."

For the past several years, animal-care staff had been closely monitoring Vivian to make sure she did not suffer, and Thursday, zoo staff made the difficult decision to euthanize her.

"Sun bears are shy by nature, but Vivian was always very confident," said Sara Morgan, the zoo's lead sun bear keeper. "She's the one visitors would see most of the time — stretched out on a sunny branch or snoozing inside a hollow log with her belly hanging out. When we put out treats for her, she'd grab them, roll over on her back, and lie there eating like Winnie the Pooh."

Also like Winnie the Pooh — and sun bears everywhere — Vivian had a special fondness for honey. Keepers would sometimes hide her meds in the sweet, sticky stuff to make sure she took them. In Malay and Indonesian, the sun bear species is called "Beruang Madu," or honey bear. Wild sun bears are known for using their curved claws to rip into bees' nests, lapping up the honey with their extremely long tongues.

Vivian was born Oct. 10, 1985, at New Orleans' Audubon Zoo and came to Portland the following year, forming strong bonds with animal-care staff, some of whom had known her since her arrival. For many years, she lived with a male bear named Bert but they did not have any cubs together. In 2000, Bert moved to the Miami Metro Zoo (now known as Zoo Miami), and Vivian was joined by a female companion, Jody.

"Jody was an anxious new roommate, even though Vivian mainly ignored her," zoo curator Amy Cutting said. "Their relationship changed over the years, and there was a long span of time that they played and slept together, showing quite a bit of companionship — with the occasional scuffle."

Jody — also one of the oldest bears around at just a couple months shy of 30 — became more independent as Vivian started showing her age, according to keepers.

"Sun bears are not terribly social by nature, and we are hopeful Jody will continue to thrive with all of the attention she receives from her keepers," Cutting said.

The zoo's sun bear habitat will be going away in a couple of years as work begins on a new home for polar bears — the sixth of eight major projects made possible by the community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure promoting animal welfare and sustainability.

"Over the next year, we will be looking to find Jody a new home and a potential companion," Cutting said. "We'll speed up that timeline if she seems to be having difficulty adjusting to life without Vivian."

Sun bears are the smallest and most arboreal of the world's eight bear species. Their long claws and inward-turned paws help them grasp onto tree limbs as they climb, and their loose, flexible skin helps the small bears evade predators: If grabbed from behind, sun bears can actually turn around within their skin to bite attackers.

Despite their name, sun bears are nocturnal — their name derives from the golden horseshoe-shaped marking on their chest, thought to resemble a sunrise. Native to the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, wild sun bears are threatened by loss of habitat to palm oil plantations, as well as poaching driven by the market for their fur and for their bile, which is used in Chinese medicine.