BILLINGS, Mont. – They will never escape their savage backstory, but three young bears whose mother led them on a rampage through a Montana campground embarked on a new career Friday: fuzzy zoo attractions.
As a posse of preschoolers pressed close as the glass would allow, the three grizzlies — now Dolly, Loulou and Koda — nosed around their new two-acre spread at ZooMontana.
Wildlife officials euthanized the bears' mother in July, after the bruin family was trapped in the wake of a rare late-night attack outside Yellowstone National Park. A Michigan man was killed and two people were injured.
The young — now almost two years old — were with the marauding sow bear, but their precise role remains unknown. Investigators concluded the mother was leading her young to food.
Now, after five months in quarantine, the bears are taking their first forays this week around their enclave in Billings. The zoo is about 125 miles from the site of the attacks, a streamside campground near Cooke City.
Friday's visit by the zoo's on-site preschool class was the largest audience so far. Public exhibitions will start in two to three weeks.
As they adjust to their new life inside an electrified fence, the bears are showing themselves little different from any other confined wild creatures, zoo representatives said.
"I'm teaching them how to scrounge for food," ZooMontana senior keeper Krystal Whetham said as the animals dug around for fruit hidden in their snowy enclosure. "They never will be in any kind of situation where they will have a conflict with people."
That sentiment was shared by the federal grizzly biologist who authorized the bears' removal from the wild amid speculation they, too, might be euthanized. Chris Servheen with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bears' previous behavior was "irrelevant" in a zoo setting.
A witness to the attacks said Friday he agreed with the young bears' placement in captivity. Roland Flemming of Alamosa, Colo., said the animals "deserved a chance."
"Since it was my daughters' boyfriend that got bit, you would think I would say they ought to have been put down," Flemming said. "But they wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for the mama."
The bears are still skittish. But after showing up scraggly and emaciated they are now rounded in the belly and thick with fur.
On Friday, Dolly and Loulou eventually inched close enough to get a good look at the children. Koda kept his distance, ducking into the bears' heated enclosure whenever someone made a sudden move.
Whetham said the three have developed distinct personalities: Dolly is the leader, Loulou the troublemaker and Koda prone to hang back while his sisters play.
And they've learned to respond when zoo employees ring a cowbell. It's a sound that means food, usually offered to entice them into or out of their pen.
Besides apples, oranges and other fruits, the bears eat ground beef and dried pellets much like dog food. They also get bones to chew on.
Cassie Dennison, the 28-year-old aunt of one of the preschoolers, eyed the surrounding fence and asked if they might be able to climb up and out using a tree that towered over the compound. Reassured they could not, she said she was excited to see them for the first time yet had mixed feelings about the grizzlies' history.
"But it's not like if I killed you — animals are different," she said.
Although they are growing more used to humans, the bears still were quick to scatter when startled by human footsteps crunching through the icy snow.
"They need to get used to it; we don't want them to go out there and have this terrible experience," Whetham said.