Ricki the ice cream bear on journey to become ... herself

Liz Evans Scolforo

Editor's note: This story originally ran in The York Dispatch on Aug. 3, 2015:

KEENESBURG, Colo. — Ricki doesn't pace anymore. Like the hundreds of other large carnivores lucky enough to be at The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside Keenesburg, Colorado, the 19-year-old black bear no longer has a reason to pace.

Unlike some of the sanctuary's residents, she quickly figured that out. Some animals take months or even years to get over the nervous behavior, despite their spacious habitats, sanctuary staffers said.

Ricki, the former mascot for Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Twp., is slowly exploring the 15-acre habitat she shares with several other black bears, according to staff members at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

"She has to move, and she wants to move in a bigger space, but she just didn't know it existed," said Pat Craig, executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary. "There's none of that nervous pacing now."

Formerly known as Little Ricki, York County's best-known celebrity bear did plenty of pacing when she was a caged attraction for 16 years at Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Township, according to the public-nuisance lawsuit filed in December on her behalf by four Central Pennsylvania residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"She spends most of her waking hours constantly pacing back and forth on the concrete floor of her (250-square-foot) cage," the lawsuit charged, calling it a "repetitive, purposeless movement ... widely recognized by animal behavior experts as a sign of intense stress and psychological deterioration."

A new life: The plaintiffs in February convinced owner Jim McDaniel Jr. to release Ricki to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, which Animal Legal Defense Fund senior attorney Matthew Liebman described as "one of the very good ones."

The 720-acre facility is the only one in the United States that provides permanent large-acreage habitats for a variety of large carnivores including bears, tigers, lions, leopards, mountain lions and wolves, according to Craig.

Ricki, the former mascot of Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Township, now has 15 acres to roam and other black bears to socialize with.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

Ricki has been at the sanctuary for nearly six months, and Craig said he expects she will live out her years there happy and contented. In captivity, bears can live up to 40 years, he said, meaning Ricki could end up spending fully half her life with the freedom to run and play.

"This is a huge improvement for her, and she has a lot more to do and to enjoy," he said. "She seems pretty happy. I think she's thrilled."

Ricki shares 15 acres of rolling grasslands with fellow black bears Josie, Coco and Jesse.

Slow and steady: She is slowly getting to know them and gradually beginning to explore her new home, Craig said. He estimated Ricki has investigated only half of her habitat.

"She'll spend upwards of a year getting the whole experience before she's ... finished (exploring) the new environment she has," he said. The space includes an 8-foot deep pond that Ricki has yet to swim in.

This is the view Ricki the bear wakes up to every day at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado.
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

"She's gone to see it, but she doesn't know if it's 2 inches deep or 8 feet deep," Craig said. Still, he expects she'll take the plunge eventually because bears love water.

Craig said he plans to install a night-vision trail camera in her habitat because he suspects she's far more active at night, as most bears are.

Ricki isn't in an area where regular visitors can see her — or where she can see humans, except for sanctuary staff and the several Central Pennsylvanians who have come to The Wild Animal Sanctuary specifically to visit her.

For more information or to make a donation, visit wildanimalsanctuary.org.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo atlevans@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.