- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2020

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. (AP) - Everybody is just so amped and ready to go, it’s just like a wound-up toy,” Riverside Discovery Center director Anthony Mason said of the staff as they prepare to open the new bear brothers exhibit.

Mason said everybody from the grounds staff to the zookeepers is looking forward to the opening of the exhibit with more than 20,000 square feet of space for the two grizzlies orphaned when they were just a few months old.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” Mason said last week, trying to hold back emotions as he spoke. “This is a dream come true being able to give these bears, who were orphaned, a nice, forever home - one of the biggest grizzly bear exhibits in the country - with some one-of-a-kind features, and to bring something like this here to the community. It makes me tear up just thinking about it. I am so thrilled to have completed this, and to deliver this is a once-in-a lifetime thing for me, honestly.”

The Scottsbluff Star-Herald reports that Smokey and Bandit came to the zoo nearly three years ago as cubs after their mother had been killed in Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park.

The official grand opening of the new exhibit will be Oct. 17 with an event that day with prizes such as a giant teddy bear and a behind-the-scenes tour in addition to prizes from the gift shop. A coloring contest is open to the public between now and the grand opening by picking up a sheet at the zoo office or by downloading it at the RDC website or Facebook page. Artists with their own drawings or artwork can also submit them to the RDC. Entries should be submitted by Oct. 16 to be eligible for a prize.

Mason said the bears will be moved in conjunction with a regular medical checkup.

“We’ve timed this to where they’re due for a physical, so we will be putting them under anesthesia and doing a physical exam on them, making sure they’re in good health, trying to check all those things,” Mason said. “We don’t get, obviously, very super hands-on with them. Then we’ll essentially be moving them over here using a big crate.”

Once the bears are in their new exhibit, Mason expects plenty of exploration by Smokey and Bandit.

“A lot of exploration, a lot of curiosity,” he said. “The water tower will be on at that time, so the stream will be running through here, so they’re going to have a bigger water area than they’ve had before, more space to move around, more things to climb on. I think they’re going to have a blast.”

The new enclosure has a rock wall in addition to the water tower for the bears to climb.

“We set it up in a way, because they love to dig, so they’ve got a lot of space where they’ll be able to dig behind it, and it still creates some different substrates and climbing features that give them different opportunities for textures and mobility,” Mason said.

A training wall built into the side of the exhibit allows staff to do demonstrations and interactions with the bears for the public to watch.

Around the exhibit, several interactive features will allow patrons to see characteristics of bears and their diet as well as see how they measure up to a bear.

“We wanted to bring an immersive experience to the guest,” Mason said. “Our theme and goal with this was to go for a frontier or front range aesthetic, so we’ve redone all the public fencing around this. We’re going for a certain feel. … We’ve put up light poles around the area that all fit with that kind of theme.”

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