Salisbury’s Alba Bear settling in at San Diego Zoo

Salisbury’s favorite bear cub, Alba, is settling in at her new home at the San Diego Zoo, and doing well, but when it was time for the zookeeper whose heart she stole to say goodbye, there was a lump in his throat.

It was Caleb Oliver after all, who first heard her newborn sounds when the mother, Chaska, surprised the zoo staff and community by giving birth in January of 2015.

“She will always have a really big place in my heart. She gets pouty and she can be goofy. That just makes me love her more,” said Oliver, who accompanied the Andean bear to San Diego in May, where it is hoped she will eventually mate and give birth.

On the flight, Alba did well, but was a little upset during transfer after the plane landed.

“She was a trooper, though, even in that situation. They often stop eating and drinking when they are stressed, but she drank and ate the whole time. I had a water bottle for her and all kinds of treats,” he said. Among them were pineapple and, her favorite peanuts.

In Salisbury, the cub delighted the community and drew crowds of visitors who stood by the exhibit waiting to catch a glimpse of her. She became known as the little dickens who loved to climb.

Now she’s entertaining a new audience in San Diego, where she’s been comically destructive.

“She completely destroyed a climbing structure. The exhibit had platforms but no trees. I told them how much she likes climbing so they installed some small trees. She pushed and pulled and unscrewed light bulbs, so they made a more secure structure, a more fortified climbing structure,” Oliver said.

Zoo staff in California found Alba hates green vegetables, but loves root vegetables and has developed a fondness for avocado.

And, she is slowly being introduced to Turbo, a 6-year-old male. They haven’t yet met, but appear curious about each other. He’s significantly larger than Alba, but has a sweet, gentle personality, Oliver said.

Most bears go into heat between 2 and 4 years old and breed between 3 and 4 years old. Alba, now 110 pounds, isn’t quite full grown.

In the spring, as the local zoo was preparing for Alba’s departure, Zoo Director Ralph Piland smiled as he described the rambunctious cub as not having a slow speed.

“She’s either asleep or running. She pulls at her mom’s hair. They play fight. She will try to sneak up on her mom. She has grown a fair bit and she’s eating well,” Piland said.

Mary Seemann, who handles marketing for the zoo, said staff had mixed emotions about Alba’s departure.

They’ve “worked very hard to provide both Mom and cub with a stimulating and supportive environment. Their success is marked by the fact that our bears are acting like bears. It has been a great year sharing this baby bear’s birth and growth with you, our visitors,” she said.

There are only 20,000 Andean bears left in the wild, causing them to be reclassified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Our collaboration with other institutions is important to conservation and gives hope for the future of the species,” Seemann said.

Now that Alba lives in a dry climate, “she has a serious ’do,’” Oliver joked about her hair.

“It’s a Rambo hairdo, just huge, huge hair. It’s twice as big as it looked when she was here. Everyone there has really fallen in love with her. There are people who go there just to see her.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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