Athena and cubs Denali & Sitka
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The other thing we would come to realize over the next several days is that Athena would leave her cubs next to groups of bear viewers to “baby sit” them while she wandered off to fish. Athena, like other bears used to the presence of human bear viewers, has learned that the larger males, who could be a threat to the cubs, tend to avoid getting too close to humans. Stashing the cubs next to humans was therefore a logical safe place to leave them, decreasing the chances that the cubs would fall prey to a predatory male bear while she wasn’t paying attention. We had first heard about this type of behavior – an obvious sign of social intelligence – from rangers at Brooks Falls in central Katmai. Brooks has three viewing platforms erected by the river. One ranger who had worked there for years told us that many mothers have learned that the larger males avoid the viewing stands. These mothers have taken to stashing their cubs underneath the stands while they go into the river to fish. We observed this quite frequently, and even had the good fortune on our first trip to Katmai to see a mother nurse right next to the stands.
The first time that Athena left her cubs with us was when John and I were sitting at the river with a group of wildlife photographers. We couldn’t believe it, Denali and Sitka sat down right next to us on the bank of the river. Mom was upriver fishing, and the cubs sat sat down facing us. They couldn’t have been any cuter and seemed to be deliberately posing. They sat side by side facing us, gazing with curious, wide eyes. John lied down in the sand in front of them, staring into their eyes. We were able to realize that Denali, with his pronounced white chevron around his neck, was a boy, and Sitka, with a smaller chevron was a girl. Denali sat upright and starting scratching between his legs with his paw. He was doing it over and over again, and I thought that he might have been playing with his penis – like a human baby boy who might toy with his own genitals. I couldn’t 100% confirm that he was in fact playing with himself, but it really looked that way. A little while later I observed that he had a small rock in his paw, and that he was using the sand covered rock to scratch his belly. This little bear, not even a year old, was using a scratching tool. I don’t even think that human babies at that age use tools. What a discovery.
Denali was a real ham. As the photographers clicked their machines, and oohed and awed and cursed the lighting angle, Denali leaned on his side bearing his fat little belly. One of the photographers commented, “this little bear is going to grow up and be in playboy or playgirl!” which I found extremely odd – that someone could look at a baby bear and think of porn. Nestled next to his sister, Denali rested his chin on top of his paw, gazing with huge brown eyes at his audience. He then commenced to using Sitka as a pillow, much to her annoyance. We were privileged to sit with these two little bears for up to a half hour, and what made the interaction so special was the eye contact between us and the cubs. Sitting with their backs to the river, and their eyes on us – it was clear that they were doing just as much people watching.
© 2008 Jessica Teel