Balloo was the largest of three cubs that wandered into the Fortress of the Bear site in 2010. After their mother died from ingesting garbage, Balloo and his siblings were taken in and raised to adulthood. (Photo by Claire Turner)

One of the rescue animals at Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear was euthanized on Thursday (10-19-17). Balloo was a seven-year-old brown bear and had lost mobility in his back legs. He lived the entirety of his adult life at the educational rescue center, which is permitted by the state to raise orphaned bear cubs and sees tens of thousands of visitors a year. Owners and staff are mourning the loss of a bear they call “one of the family.”

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Fortress of the Bear knew something was wrong with Balloo when he came out of hibernation in April. He appeared weak on his feet and struggled to move. His condition slowly deteriorated over the year, with some good days in between. Then in August, he lost full mobility of his back legs.

Co-owners Les and Evy Kinnear said it wasn’t just the bear keepers that noticed.

“When he was struggling to eat, Lucky brought him fish over to where he was in the water. They never took advantage of the fact that he was in a weakened condition ever…they acted so appropriately for someone who was not well,” Evy said.

Lucky is Balloo’s brother and Toby his sister. Back in 2010, the three cubs stumbled into the then-empty bear habitat with their mother. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game tagged them and their mother later died from ingesting too many plastic bags. The Fortress later acquired the orphaned cubs, which current state law requires be killed if they cannot find placement in captivity. Balloo lived for another seven years and topped 1000 lbs.

A 2012 video shows Balloo standing on top of a water in a pool of water and dragging a giant yellow ball into the center. He stands, climbs on top of the ball, and balances perfectly at the top – scratching it, like an acrobat with claws. “He just exhibited a lot of extraordinary behavior that the other bears didn’t think about,” said Les Kinnear, co-founder of Fortress of the Bear.

Les named Balloo after one of his favorite characters in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The other bears, when tossed a piece of a piece of fish or some fruit, would duck their heads. But Balloo? “He would catch it,” Les recalled. “He enjoyed playing games.”

Balloo bobbing in the pen pool. The pens are converted clarification tanks at the site of Sitka’s former pulp mill. (Photo courtesy of Claire Turner)

In light of Balloo’s ailing condition, Fortress reached out to ADF&G, local physicians, chiropractors, and veterinarians, and bear experts around the world for medical advice. They even brought in Dr. Michelle Oakley of the National Geographic show “Yukon Vet” to take a look.

“[Dr. Oakley] had a portable X-ray machine and we thought, ‘Maybe we could see what was going on and it could be helpful.’ He was on all kinds of medications. Everything, anything anybody suggested…we tried,” Evy said.

However, the machine couldn’t penetrate the many layers of fat and fur to see the problem. Initial blood work revealed no sign of an infection. After a certain point, Balloo stopped eating and went down to the pool. He spent the night in there and couldn’t get out.

“Life had gone out of his eyes.  He’d given up, you could tell. He just wasn’t the old Balloo that we knew,” Evy said.

ADF&G biologist Steven Bethune instructed the Fortress to put Balloo down and assisted Les with that on Thursday (10-19-17).  His carcass was donated to the Alaska Raptor Center five miles down Sawmill Creek Road. Local veterinarian Burgess Bauder is performing a necropsy. Over the phone with KCAW, Bauder said his early clinical diagnosis is that Balloo had a degenerative condition in his spinal column.

As for the Fortress, staff are processing this loss and preparing the rest of the bears for hibernation. Evy says they’re not worried that Balloo’s condition will spread to the other animals. “We just think this is an anomaly. One of the things is you can’t really know if this happens in the wild to a bear. We don’t know,” she said.

Evy adds that what the Kinnears do know – and are re-discovering through in-person and online comments – is that Balloo was beloved in Sitka. “One person said seeing him when they were in their own personal bereavement was the only shining light during that period. Comments like that just mean so much,” Evy said.” That a bear could have that impact on people is profound. We’re really heartened by that.”

The Kinnears are having a taxidermist prepare a full mount so visitors can see Balloo fully and commemorate his legacy.