clock 10 am – 5 pm
Blog Animals

Mental health awareness — for animals too

Mental health awareness has jumped into the spotlight since the COVID-19 pandemic took over our lives two years ago. So many people were stretched to think and do things differently. These past two years have pushed our medical professionals to unimaginable limits, and the mental health part of care has moved to the forefront. The trauma people have suffered, not just from COVID, is forever in one’s life.

Mental health challenges exist in the world of non-human animals too, which leads us to dig a little deeper into the story and care of our newest bear.

We received news at the end of September 2021 about an orphaned bear cub that was not suitable for re-release. Very quickly, we worked on getting everything in order to provide this bear a home. About one week later, she was here. She arrived with intense medical issues — physical, behavioral, and mental. Numerous veterinarians and professional Museum animal care team members worked to address her issues rapidly. With the appropriate care and medicines, we handled her physical medical needs over several weeks. But past psychological traumas are harder to resolve.

Past traumas are always with us. And the same is true for Little Bear. No one knows what exactly happened to her during her limited time in the wild. However, the people that inappropriately interacted with her during an incredibly formative period have left her with deep and intense anxiety and compulsive disorders.

Just like with humans, we don’t say, “there’s nothing we can do for her.” And just as with human mental health, treatment can take months and even years to create behavior change. Within 24 hours of her arrival on grounds, our attending veterinarian had enlisted the entire Behavioral Medicine Service at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Many Museum visitors have seen Little Bear’s issues. Maybe you have seen her pacing or heard her vocalizations. Perhaps you have witnessed her self-soothing paw-sucking. These are the behaviors that we are working to extinguish. But past traumas are never fixed, and the path to better mental health comes with both steps forward and regression backward.

Little Bear’s treatment is multi-fold and constant. We consult with our veterinary team weekly and sometimes daily with updates and needs. We have multiple reports from and communication with the behavior specialists to help guide our plans to help Little Bear. Three different daily medicines to support her anxiety and compulsions are in use. They are adjusted according to her weight to make sure she is getting the appropriate dose. The Animal Care Team has redesigned our routine for working with her. These routines include specific enrichment items and administration, a human replacement (mannequin) for her, and an in-depth behavior chart to help document Little’s behavior in quantifiable (and qualitative) ways.

Additionally, the natural behavior, biology, and seasonal cycles of black bears overlay our management and support of Little Bear. Since change increases her anxiety, the late fall torpor that our adult bears experienced caused another backslide for her. Now that the adult bears are waking up, she is experiencing change again.

Just like with many humans (or maybe it’s just me), it can be easier to focus on the troubling parts. Little Bear’s pacing was extinguished mid-fall, but it returned when the adult bears got inactive. Her pacing is regular but not constant. We are seeing more typical black bear behaviors — natural behaviors that she has never exhibited before. It’s exciting, and it needs to be celebrated and acknowledged, even while troubling behaviors remain present. The list of what we are starting to see more often is promising for Little Bear:

  • You can find Little wrestling with Gus most early mornings, and she is starting to do this later in the morning too. You might see her pounce on him while he lays on the ground belly up and paws out.
  • We’ve seen her run around the culvert pipe and halfway up the tree near the cave after climbing over stumps and logs in the habitat.
  • She now readily engages with enrichment items (knocking over boxes, utilizing puzzle feeders), investigates new scents, as well as taking browse and bags and grabbing them in her mouth as she shakes them vigorously (in essence, “killing them”).
  • She is foraging in the yard regularly. She samples the grass and appears to watch Gus as he does the same.
  • She digs and roots around the yard and with specific enrichment that provides the same opportunity.
  • We find her splashing in her water buckets and rubbing her back on large brushes

The road to recovery is hard. It’s constant, and it doesn’t happen in a straight line. Past traumas are always with us. We owe so much gratitude to the veterinary professionals and animal caretakers who work tirelessly to ensure our non-human team and family members are taken care of (and not just Little Bear). Similarly, we owe so much to all our health professionals for helping us humans live with and manage our mental health needs.