BANFF – When Skoki the grizzly bear popped his head inside the back door of Laggan’s Bakery in Lake Louise and stepped on a tent with campers inside at the nearby campground, it was the final nail in his coffin.
That was 24 years ago on June 23, 1996.
Amid fears he was a threat to public safety with his escalating behaviour throughout that spring and summer, the young sub-adult grizzly on the verge of becoming a breeding male was shipped to the Calgary Zoo. When he emerges from his den at the zoo this spring, he will be 33 years old.
Mike Gibeau, a world-renowned grizzly bear expert, said bear #16, as he was known back then, would be dead if he remained a wild bear, noting male bears in this region can live naturally to between 15 and 18 years of age if not killed by human-causes first.
“He was a very happy-go-lucky bear, but his major crime was sticking his head in the bakery in Lake Louise,” said Gibeau, who was part of the Parks Canada team that was managing bear #16 at the time.
The young male grizzly bear spent the first years of his life learning the ways of the wild from his mom, but around 1993 he set off on his own to fend for himself and was often spotted grazing in the lower Bow Valley.
Over the next few summers, his presence caused ‘bear jams’, and not surprisingly, it’s believed he got into human food at some point. Having lost his wariness of people, he started travelling into developed areas.
As people became bolder around him and started approaching him at closer range, bear #16 became bolder around them and began defending his personal space. At one point, he bluff charged two vehicles.
By May 1996, bear #16 began to frequent the hamlet of Lake Louise for the first time, often during daylight hours, and was believed responsible for bluff charging a fisherman at Wapta Lake west of Lake Louise at close range that same month.
Then on June 23, his behaviour became even bolder and more concerning as he stepped on a tent at Lake Louise campground and frightened the campers inside, and then investigated the back door of Laggan’s bakery.
With previous aversive conditioning having limited success with this bear, Parks Canada captured bear #16 on June 25 and relocated him within his home range to the Flints Park area of the park. Within four days, he was back in the Bow Valley and back to his old ways.
A decision was made to destroy the bear on July 4, but a last-minute call was made to the Calgary Zoo to cover all possible options. On July 5, bear #16 was caught near Hillsdale Split off the Bow Valley Parkway and shipped to the Calgary Zoo – and he’s been there ever since.
Hal Morrison, who is a retired human-wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada and one of the members of the team involved in this case at the time, strongly recommended killing bear #16, believing the zoo was no life for a wild grizzly.
“At the time, I believed if we could not live with him, then we should have the guts to admit our failings and destroy him,” he said.
“I am also not a fan of keeping animals that were born in the wild in captivity. As we know, I was overruled and he went to the zoo.”
Morrison had the opportunity to see bear #16 at the zoo at least four times over the years, noting the animal appeared happy in his spacious enclosure, especially when his female companions were in heat.
He said the ethical question of whether a large carnivore should be in a zoo, especially one born in the wild, is a personal one.
“I can say that his captivity was a good opportunity for many people to learn from his story and the pressures faced by many animals in ‘protected areas’ as well as other areas,” he said.
“I can also say that Calgary Zoo did a great job in doing the best possible in providing a relatively spacious enclosure and tried so hard to enrich his surroundings as best possible.”
All that said, Morrison said it’s a moot point on whether the bear was killed or sent to the zoo.
“Either way, he wasn’t on the land contributing his genes as well as everything associated with his simply being present in his area,” he said.
Gibeau, meanwhile, believes Skoki’s personality helped him survive these 24 years in captivity.
“He was a young sub-adult male, obviously quite adaptable and he adjusted quite well it appears,” he said.
“But not all bears are like that. Most bears, I would say, probably can’t adjust to that kind of confinement so zoos have never been my first choice,” he added.
“I don’t disagree with Hal that some fates are worse than death. Putting them in a zoo could be a fate worse than death for many bears.”
Gibeau described Skoki as a “very gregarious” bear, which likely helped him adapt.
“There’s a wide range of behaviours among individual bears,” he said. “Just like people, some are grumpy old men, some are Mary Poppins and then there’s a whole range in between.”
This winter, Skoki was witnessed popping his head outside of his den at the zoo on Jan. 22 when a Chinook saw temperatures go above zero. Generally, he isn’t seen all winter, from November to March.
“I’m sure there’s times he pokes his head out and we don’t happen to see him, so I think I was lucky I saw him the other week,” said Shannon Collard, a senior zookeeper who looks after Skoki in the Canadian Wilds section of the zoo.
“Even then, he didn’t fully come out of the den. He stuck his head out, ate the snow all around the opening and then he was gone.”
Skoki’s health is considered good, and changes in his behaviour would lead to a full check up to make sure all is well.
“He’s doing very well and is a very well adjusted bear,” Collard said.
Essentially deaf now, Skoki stopped responding to his caregivers over time when they called him for his training – sessions for the animals to practice natural behaviours that exercise their minds and bodies.
“That’s a challenge because he doesn’t hear the bell anymore so we tried wafting bacon grease and other things to work with him,” Collard said, adding he acts more on scent and sight now.
“Other than that, he has some teeth issues, but health-wise he is pretty good.”
Skoki is now 33 years old. The age of the oldest bear in captivity is not known for sure.
One report put a male grizzly bear at Sunset Zoological Park in Kansas at about 56 years old when he was euthanized because of serious medical conditions in 2009. More recently, a female grizzly bear at Ohio’s Columbus Zoo died at age 40 in 2015 when put down due to severe conditions brought on by old age.
“Skoki is definitely up there in age and he’s considered a senior citizen,” Collard said.
“Each spring, we’re nervous and then we’re relieved to see him come out of his den.”
Weighing 407 kgs (897 pounds) when he entered his den in November, Skoki is considered a “big guy.”
“When he did wake up this past spring he was 341 kgs. When they first get up because their guts are not fully going yet, the actually lose weight because they’re starting to move around,” Collard said.
“He dropped all the way down to 310 kgs and then he just increased for the rest of the summer until he got to 407.”
Skoki, who was neutered when he first arrived, has fared well for a captive bear.
“A lot of times when you have rescue bears come in, they don’t do well in a captive setting and you can see stereotypical behaviours start to show up, like pacing, bar biting and that kind of stuff,” Collard said.
“The whole time he’s been here, he’s settled in pretty well. We don’t see a lot of anticipatory behaviour in him, he’s into his routine and he’s very patient with us. The only time we see him kind of get impatient is in the fall when he’s starting to become super, super hungry.”
Skoki isn’t fed throughout the winter, the same as if he was a wild bear. When he gets up in spring, his caregivers start his diet slowly, by introducing food like lettuce and celery.
“You start to slowly introduce more and more stuff till they get their full diet, which includes their meat, their fruits and veggies, fish,” Collard said. “There’s a fall diet too where certain things start to get weaned off.”
With more than one million people visiting the zoo every year, Skoki gets a lot of attention.
“I think particularly because Skoki is deaf now, he’s kind of in his own little world. He’ll forage when we give him breakfast and then he’ll snooze,” Collard said.
“His day doesn’t seem to be affected by the public on days when there’s screaming school groups versus a couple of people. He’s just pretty chill.”
Collard believes the zoo was the best-case scenario for Skoki based on his history in Banff all those years ago.
“It’s a shame that he didn’t get to breed in the wild, of course, but I don’t think there was any other options for him and I’m glad he’s doing well,” she said.
Gibeau and Morrison, who both started their careers in the 1970s at a time bears were considered quite expendable by park managers, both agree there weren’t many options at the time, given bear #16’s escalating behaviour and potential threat to public safety.
Gibeau, who did an analysis of the efficiency of the management practice of long-distance translocations shortly after Skoki went to the zoo, doesn’t believe that was an option, even though it was on the table for discussions at the time.
“That reinforced the notion, certainly with Parks Canada, which is still in place today, which is that they don’t do long-distance translocations because they don’t work,” he said.
“Short distance relocation is used as a stop gap measure to break the cycle, but they don’t use long-distance translocation as a management tool… it is questionable at best and unethical at worst.”
With the management of grizzly bears continuing to evolve over time in the national parks, it’s possible there could have been a different outcome for this bear had he been in Banff today. Grizzlies were declared a threatened species in Alberta in 2010.
“Looking through today’s lens, I think there would have been intervention with bear #16 much earlier on and things would not have escalated to the point that they did,” Gibeau said.
“Today management is more on top of those problem behaviours and they nip them in the bud and they actively change behaviour,” he added.
“It was too little too late in his case. Who knows what the outcome would be because individual bears respond so differently.”
Colleen Campbell was one of the bear researchers at the time studying bear #16. In the lead up to the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project, Gibeau had asked her to track the bear, which was fitted with a conventional VHF radio collar.
“He had been hanging out in the Bow Valley and he was very indifferent to people, so car jams formed readily because he didn’t run away,” she said.
“He was not the least bit aggressive, and he would just saunter off into the bush.”
Campbell said he ranged widely, but liked the Bow Valley where there was good bear food.
“Even in 1993, it was a serious challenge for Parks to keep track of all interference of bears because the Bow Valley was loaded with people,” she said.
When first at the zoo in isolation, Campbell recalls it was a tough adjustment for bear #16.
“He had no place to go, there was no natural habitat around him, he was sad, upset, angry,” she said.
“He quickly realized that [the keeper] meant him no harm, and that she brought food and when she came in he wouldn’t respond with aggression, so he settled down fairly quickly.”
When bear #16 first went to the zoo, Campbell was heartbroken.
“He wasn’t killed, but we lost a bear. He was taken out of the breeding population and from all the signs he had the character and genetics that we would like to keep in this landscape,” she said.
“He just broadened the landscape for me, so when he went to the zoo I felt really sad that he was gone from the landscape, but also really glad that he wouldn’t die.”
Campbell has been to visit Skoki many, many times over the years. “I kind of ache for him.”