This is a tale of two grizzlies.
Digger and Emmett are the 700-pound-plus inhabitants of the Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Both had been labeled nuisance bears after one too many incidents involving humans and food in Montana. So the 16-year-olds, who aren’t related, have called Colorado Springs home since 2007.
Their story is the first in a monthly series to introduce the animals of the award-winning zoo.
Let’s start with Digger. As you might suspect, he’s affectionately named for his digging skills. At the Montana sanctuary where he lived previously, Digger spent a good chunk of his days digging up his enclosure — so much so that he built up a pile of dirt and mud that required a backhoe to clear out.
Emmett loves a routine and stays focused on the task at hand, if his roommate isn’t bugging him. He boasts quite an internal clock — at exactly 4:30 p.m. each day, he’s waiting by the door to go inside for dinner. For years, the zoo put on a bear show that started at 2:45 p.m. Emmett would stroll over at the proper time and do the show from memory.
What’s a day look like?
Keepers arrive at 8 a.m., often to the sight of the pair cuddling in their homemade nests. Breakfast means bear chow, which is like dog food only bigger. Throughout the day, they get a lot of vegetables and fruit, including romaine lettuce, carrots and sweet potatoes. Meat and fish are also part of their diet.
Keepers add rainbow trout to the pond in the enclosure so the bears can brush up on their hunting skills. The bears like to forage in the morning and late afternoon, looking for food that has been buried or smeared on rocks and inside logs.
Guest encounters and behind-the-scenes tours are also part of the routine.
The bears are in a state of torpor, or dormancy, for the winter. So a portion of their day is devoted to gathering nesting materials such as branches and hay and building cozy beds for all that snoozing. Come summer, they’re much more active, although napping remains high on the to-do list.
Perhaps a spoonful of grape jelly.
Courtney Rogers, the lead keeper at Rocky Mountain Wild, and Kelsey Walker, another keeper, have to spell out “j-e-l-l-y.” Otherwise, the bear boys get super excited, much like many dogs when hearing the word “walk.”
And a cute peanut anecdote: They both happily accept shelled peanuts, but Digger without fail will remove the shell before eating the nuts.
Don’t bother with bananas, however. Digger won’t even take the fruit. And while Emmett will take it, he quickly tosses it over his shoulder in their enclosure.
Extroverts or introverts?
Probably one of each, which might explain why they get along so well. Digger is typically the first to arrive at the gate to greet humans while Emmett takes his time. Digger loves to wrestle with his buddy while Emmett often can be found playing in the pond or by himself.
How does training work?
These smarty pants know about 40 behaviors. When a keeper shows Digger a hooked finger, it prompts the bear to stick out his tongue, thereby allowing staff to check his health via the color of his tongue and gums. The bears are even trained to accept injections and have blood drawn without having to be anesthetized.
The boys also are trained in natural behaviors, which are mostly things the bears already knew and then taught their keepers. One behavior, which originated with Emmett but Digger noticed and also started doing, is comical. The bears sit on their haunches, lean back, grab their back paws with their front paws and extend their legs out.
What about zoo guests?
According to the keepers, the grizzlies do care what we think of them, especially Emmett. He enjoys the sound of laughter, Rogers said, and conveys it with a facial expression called the smile. Bears around the world will do that smile, but for different reasons. Emmett does it when he’s balancing things on his paws or if somebody is laughing, Rogers said.
Digger stays true to his prankster ways.
“Digger really likes to scare people,” Rogers said. “Usually it’s at the window inside the viewing area. He’ll wait until you’re not looking and he’ll do a little squat at the glass. If you act surprised, he’ll smile.”