Rare Bear Starved in Zoo Mistake

T O L E D O, Ohio, Dec. 14, 2000 -- A sloth bear on loan to the Toledo Zoo died of dehydration because zoo officials, who thought she was pregnant, mistakenly denied her food and water for weeks.

“In this tragic case, mistakes were made,” said William Dennler, executive director of the Toledo Zoo. “Our checks and balances failed,”

A three-page investigative report released Wednesday said zoo officials didn’t know enough about breeding the endangered species.

Bear Not Hibernating

Zoo employees left the 18-year-old bear, named Medusa, isolated in a den Nov. 17, with a short-term supply of food and water. The employees thought she was pregnant and would enter into a near-hibernation state to give birth by early January.

Medusa was found dead Dec. 4 and wasn’t pregnant, the report said.

The report said Tim French, curator of large mammals at the Toledo Zoo, mistakenly believed the sloth bear was among several bear species that went into a near-hibernation state when pregnant, and didn’t need extra food and water.

A pregnant sloth bear would have needed weekly offerings of food and water in order to survive, the report said. Isolating pregnant bears is a common tactic for breeding because pregnant bears are hypersensitive to perceived threats.

The report was written by a five-member panel of the Toledo Zoological Association, the board that oversees the nonprofit zoo. It was written after a one-day inquiry Monday of zoo employees.

Dennler said no zoo employees have been disciplined.

Bear Was on Loan

The Detroit Zoo loaned Medusa to the Toledo Zoo last year so she could breed with its one male sloth bear, Hans.

The zoo isolated Medusa last year and replenished her food and water weekly. She failed to get pregnant, the report said.

French blamed the unsuccessful breeding, in part, on human contact. So he decided next time to drop the weekly visual check-ins and weekly food and water replenishments, the report said.

That mistake was compounded by not checking with any other bear experts, the report said.

The report also blamed Medusa’s death on a lack of administrative oversight for her pregnancy.

Dennler said the zoo has adopted the report’s suggestions getting the approval of zoo veterinarians and administrators before isolating animals or withholding food from them.

Sloth bears are native to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Scientists estimate fewer than 25,000 are left in the wild, and fewer than 100 are in North American zoos. They typically live into their 20s in the wild and into their 30s in captivity.