Ricki the bear wakes up, poses for fan photo
Fans of Ricki clamored all winter for new photos of the black bear in her Colorado sanctuary home, but the former York County roadside attraction had other ideas.
"We had to tell people all winter that she wasn't available," said Kent Drotar, director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary's ambassador program. "We never force our animals to do anything."
Ricki — who spent 16 years caged at Jim Mack's Ice Cream in Hellam Township — spent a long time hibernating over the winter, he said. In fact, she was one of the last bears to decide she'd had enough of her long winter nap.
Most bears bed down for good by Thanksgiving, but Ricki was hibernating by late October, according to Drotar. Hibernation isn't a coma, and it's common for bears to wake up on warmer winter days, he said.
At the sanctuary, some bears leave their dens over the winter and poke around a bit because there's not enough snow to bury their den entrances, Drotar said. He likens it to people who wake up in the middle of the night, shuffle to the refrigerator to take a look, then shuffle back to bed.
"We knew Ricki was awake, off and on," he said, but the trick was for one of her caregivers to spot her when she was close enough to be photographed. That happened just recently, Drotar said, and the cellphone photo was published on the sanctuary's Facebook page.
"Most bears are out to stay by mid-April," he said, depending on the weather. "It was pretty much early May before Ricki was convinced (it was time to wake up)."
Ricki was ambling across a grassy area of her large-acreage habitat and sat down, allowing her caregiver to snap a photo. She was likely out grazing on young, tender grasses, he said.
Huge following: "She has a huge following in York," Drotar said, likely because of the 16 years during which kids and their parents could visit her at Jim Mack's.
"People ask us all the time about Ricki," he said. "Next to the two lions we got from Uruguay, she is the most asked-about animal, bar none. We've gotten inquiries all winter about her."
The update, he said, is positive.
"She looks great," Drotar said. "She is putting on quite a bit of weight and (beginning) to develop a very thick coat of fur."
When she was visited in July 2015 by a York Dispatch reporter, Ricki was just beginning to explore her 15-acre habitat, which she shares with several other black bears. She had checked out a water hole in her domain but at that point hadn't tried to soak, despite the fact that bears are known to love water.
Took the plunge: Drotar said Ricki took the plunge later last summer and hasn't looked back.
"She had a daily routine — she would take an afternoon trek and go to one of the water tanks in her habitat. The bears really like those water tanks," he said. "Every afternoon, it was almost like clockwork. She would leave her den and start walking to her water tank."
Ricki loves soaking in the tank, and bears in general love water, according to Drotar. Sometimes they want to cool off, sometimes they want to splash around and play, and sometimes they just soak peacefully.
He confirmed Ricki has continued her friendship with habitat-mate Josie, a black bear that staffers say was one of the first bears to greet Ricki when she arrived at the sanctuary.
Ricki is about 20 years old. She could live to be up to 40 years old, according to Drotar, so she has plenty of time to enjoy her new life.
The concrete shuffle: She is still going through physical and mental changes, he said.
Her odd way of walking — which sanctuary staffers refer to as the concrete shuffle — is the result of standing for so many years on a concrete pad and is common among large predators caged in areas with concrete floors, experts say. But that could continue to improve, according to Drotar.
"She's definitely more mobile but still has an awkwardness to her gait," he said. "She's probably going to loosen up, and her gait will more than likely improve over time. ... Her tendons have to readjust to being on soft earth."
But she could be more prone to developing arthritis later in life, he noted.
For now, Ricki looks great, is happy and healthy and doesn't seem to be in any pain.
"She's a gentle, humble bear — that's just her personality," Drotar said. "That's who Ricki is."
Staff sees gratitude: Drotar said sanctuary staff and volunteers believe their charges know they got lucky.
"They're happy to be in a good place. They're grateful," he said. "Animals we rescue demonstrate a sense of gratitude ... maybe that's anthropomorphism. But we can tell our animals appreciate being here."
Many sanctuary residents didn't know what they were when they arrived, Drotar said.
"They have to learn what it means to be a bear," he said, or a lion or tiger or wolf.
Ricki's journey: 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, according to a public-nuisance lawsuit filed in December 2014 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."
The plaintiffs in February 2015 convinced owner Jim McDaniel Jr. to release Ricki to The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Keenesburg, Colorado.
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 Executive Director Pat Craig.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.wildanimalsanctuary.org.