Missing Chumley

Even a Salisbury zookeeper's professionalism couldn't protect her from feeling the loss of a bear she'd known for 20 years.

January 13, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Around the time of the afternoon feed, about 4:20 on Dec. 30, zookeeper Ann Meyer-Kuntze entered the spectacled bear den and knew within seconds that something was wrong.

Poopsie, the female, had gathered in her teeth a bed of leaves, arranged them in her den and was waiting to be fed biscuits. But Chumley, the old male who lay in the den opposite hers, did not appear to be hungry. He was sprawled on his side in a position for slumber, his front paws stretched ahead of him, and the more Ann studied him, the more she knew he was not sleeping. His chest was not rising and falling, the coarse black hairs that covered him not moving at all.

Twenty years of working at the Salisbury Zoo, tending carnivores and herbivores alike, taught Ann that no matter how attached she becomes to animals, they are still animals. The first thing she did was crank the winch that lowered the steel bars between her and the bear.

Chumley was obstinate by nature and could drive his keepers crazy. There were days when he wouldn't move into the den and allow Ann to hose down the concrete floor, days he wouldn't get out of the pool so she could drain it, days when even Poopsie couldn't stand him and would climb a tree in the yard to get away from his amorous advances. On the rare days when a carrot, a grape, or a slice of watermelon could lure him into the den, the sound of the winch could send him fleeing back out again.

When he didn't react to the sound now, Ann knew he was in trouble.

At 28, Chumley was old for his species. He had come to the zoo before spectacled bears were identified as endangered, before the cloud forests of the Andes, his species' native habitat, were overrun by cocaine dealers; back when a zoo could buy one of the small bears with the cream-colored facial markings that give them their name.

The Salisbury Zoo in those days was evolving from a menagerie into what it is today, a 14-acre collection of 800 animals, 500 of them birds, native to North, South or Central America. Chumley was a significant acquisition. The Salisbury Exchange Club raised the money to build his exhibit, and two sister bears, Poopsie and Mimi, were acquired from the Baltimore Zoo in 1973. Mimi was moved to the National Zoo in Washington in August 1976, and Chumley arrived a week later from Madison, Wis., with the hope he and Poopsie would become a mating pair. Spectacled bears are so difficult to breed there are fewer than 100 in captivity today.

Chumley and Poopsie proved the skeptics wrong and produced four viable young. Their offspring were sent to zoos in Cologne, Nuremberg, Zurich, and Chicago. The second pair of cubs was moved a few months after Ann was hired in 1982, and although she did not work with them directly, she developed an instant bond with their parents. The depth of her relationship hit her 20 years later when she knelt near Chumley, worried he was no longer breathing.

The old bear lay motionless, the den growing dark around him. Ann reached between the metal bars and touched his nose. When he didn't react, she touched him again. He still didn't respond.

Other than occasional bouts with ringworm, Chumley was, for the most part, healthy. He ate what spectacled bears eat: apples, pears, peanuts, cooked sweet potatoes. He behaved the way most animals do in captivity, especially carnivores used to hunting constantly: He paced, so much that keepers put Vaseline on the walls to prevent him from rubbing the hair off his back.

When Chumley stopped eating all of his meals last winter, when he "fell off his feed," Poopsie's appetite diminished, too. But Ann saw no reason to worry. She attributed the change to the decrease in sunlight.

Most of Chumley's problems were the sad but inevitable side-effects of aging. Chumley and Poopsie stopped going for carrots, their favorite treat, and Ann figured they'd simply had enough to last a lifetime. When Chumley stopped eating again this year, around Christmas, Ann still didn't worry.

No one was surprised when he lost teeth or the hair on his muzzle turned gray. He walked slowly and no longer climbed into the hammock they'd made for him of worn-out fire hoses donated by the Salisbury Fire Department, but that was due to his arthritis.

The scariest development was the appearance of several tumors on his head. The veterinarian removed them in March 2000, and the biopsy revealed malignant skin cancer that the vet said was almost certain to return. But Chumley recovered, and his health appeared to be fine until the 30th of December. Ann didn't want to admit it to herself, but she thought she knew why he didn't respond to her touching his nose.

There was one final test that would tell her for sure. Ann touched his eye. There was no reaction. Chumley was dead.

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