BILLINGS, Mont. — Looking healthier but still skittish from their wild upbringing, three orphaned grizzly bears that took part in a fatal campground rampage outside Yellowstone National Park made their public debut Friday at a Montana zoo.
A dozen preschoolers watched as the young bears — nicknamed Dolly, Loulou and Koda — nosed around a two-acre outdoor compound surrounded by high-voltage electric fencing.
Dolly and Loulou eventually inched close enough to get a good look at the children. But Koda, described by his ZooMontana keepers as “the reticent one,” kept his distance, ducking into the bears’ heated enclosure whenever someone made a sudden move.
Wildlife officials euthanized the bears’ mother after she led them on a late-night attack that left a Michigan man dead and two others injured.
Although the younger bears participated in the July attack near Cooke City — about 125 miles from the zoo — officials said they were only following their mother’s lead.
The bears have shown themselves to be little different from any other wild creatures that end up in confinement, zoo representatives said. That sentiment was shared by the federal grizzly bear biologist who authorized the bears’ placement at ZooMontana.
Chris Servheen with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bears’ previous behavior was “irrelevant” in a zoo setting. “They’re not walking around among people — they are in a controlled environment,” he said.
A witness to the attacks said Friday that he agreed with the young bears’ placement in a zoo. Roland Flemming of Alamosa, Colo., said the approximately two-year-old bears “deserved a chance.”
“Since it was my daughters’ boyfriend that got bit, you would think I would say they ought to have been put down,” Flemming said. “But they wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for the mama.”
The bears, which turn two years old this winter, will spend the next several weeks adjusting to their surroundings before they are allowed out during ZooMontana’s regular hours, said senior zookeeper Krystal Whetham.
“They need to get used to it; we don’t want them to go out there and have this terrible experience,” she said, adding that grizzlies can live as many as 30 years in captivity.
The three bears had arrived at the zoo emaciated and with matted fur — signs of stress that might have contributed to the fatal campground attack.
They have since rounded out to more than 150 pounds each, with thick coats that appeared more than adequate protection against temperatures Friday that dropped into the teens.
Whetham said the three have developed distinct personalities: Dolly is the leader, Loulou the troublemaker and Koda prone to hang back while his sisters play.
Although they are growing more used to humans, the bears still were quick to scatter Friday when startled by human footsteps crunching through the icy snow.