No teddies’ picnic when bear tasted freedom

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FORMIDABLE: Luanda, a male bear, was rescued from the Luanda Zoo in 1994. He caused a flurry when a door was left unlocked and he escaped from his enclosure. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Johannesburg - Something you don’t want to hear when your handheld radio crackles to life and you work at the zoo: “Mayday, mayday, we have an escaped animal.”

Joburg Zoo keeper Alfred Ratshote’s ears pricked up. He instantly thought of the bears he had looked after for 12 years.

“That day they were doing some enrichment projects with the bears and the team said when they were finished they would lock up all the gates,” Ratshote recalls of that incident three years ago.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the enrichment team had forgotten to close up properly.

The radio crackled to life again: “Brown bear near the temple section” was the message.

Ratshote went cold. It had to be Trinkie or Luanda, the brown bear pair he was responsible for. One of them must have got out of the enclosure, maybe through one of the small double gates that the enrichment team could have forgotten to lock, and was now headed to the new reptile centre in the zoo.

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BONDED: Keeper Alfred Ratshote has a quiet chat to Luanda at the Joburg Zoo. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

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“These are not pets,” Ratshote says of the massive brown bears that are said to be the zoo’s most dangerous animals.

They are not Rupert, Paddington or Pooh.

When Ratshote cleans the brown bear and spectacled bear enclosures the animals are lured into their night cages and weighted levers are dropped to bring down heavy metal dividers that make it safe enough for him to enter the bears’ outside pens.

It’s a meticulous process that he follows to the letter because it’s about safety first, says Ratshote.

Ratshote rushed to the back entrance of the bears’ enclosure. It’s a section closed to public access. Sure enough – Luanda, the male, was waddling down the paved track in the direction of the temple.

“I was about 15 or 20 metres away from Luanda and I just stopped,” says Ratshote, recalling how frightening it was to know that if Luanda turned and decided to charge him he would probably not be able to outrun the bear, so his life could be swiped into oblivion by a giant paw.

“‘Luanda, Luanda,’ I called to him,” says Alfred.

The bear with the shaggy dark brown coat stopped and turned. He knew the voice well. Ratshote froze as he and Luanda locked eyes. Luanda lifted his head, but he didn’t charge. He padded back towards Ratshote and slipped into the enclosure he had called home for more than a dozen years.

Safely behind bars, Luanda did not know the panic he had created. Ratshote, though, understood the chaos that had been averted and double-checked all the locks and gates.

His heart might have been racing, but he was glad Luanda had suffered no stress.

He says Luanda, a refugee from Angola, has had his share of tough times. Rescued from Luanda as a three-year-old during Angola’s civil war, he was renamed after the capital city.

But being a zookeeper is never just a job.

“Luanda is my favourite. Trinkie’s too lazy,” Ratshote jokes of the bears he has looked after for 15 years.

He says he sometimes dreams about the bears and when he’s on leave he worries about whether they’re being looked after properly, and if they have enough of their favourite food – fish.

He likes to spend time in the enclosure’s public viewing area. There he often calls out to Luanda. Calling to a bear is not like calling to a dog or even a disinterested cat. They ignore the attention pretty much. When Trinkie is called she doesn’t respond.

But there’s a bond between Ratshote and Luanda. The bear, which weighs more than 550kg, stirs and sniffs the air. He gets up, ambles down to the moat and sits directly beneath Ratshote. Ratshote mumbles and whispers to the bear, Luanda looks up and listens… it’s beary special. - Sunday Argus

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