The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget baby pandas: Andean bears are the best at being bears

I'm going to lay this disclosure out at the top: I am not a big fan of giant pandas. This has been documented.

You can disagree with me. That's okay! The clashing of opinions gives rise to truth. Plus, it's a fool's errand to try to convince a giant panda lover that these animals aren't the cutest and best animals ever.

But we can all agree that giant panda fans shower a lot of attention on these creatures, and perhaps some of that excess love can be reserved for another bear deserving affection. May I present the Andean (a.k.a. spectacled) bear.

You probably haven't heard too much about these bears, what with giant pandas hogging so much of the media spotlight. The most famous Andean bear is Paddington. So, like, B-list celeb status?

Just four litters of these animals have been born in American zoos over the past nine years, one of which includes two cubs born in late 2014 at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington. (Aside: you can help name them.)

Here are some reasons why they are deserving of your love:


According to the National Zoo, the animals "build stick platforms, which are used for reaching elevated food and for sleeping." Um, excuse me, they build stick platforms? These bears don't just roam around, stripping plants that they pass by. They are carpenters. A bear building a stick platform in trees is the human equivalent of building a deck by yourself, and let's face it, probably only 10 percent of Americans are up to the task.

Don't attack people

Man, it's always about us, isn't it? Well, these guys are pretty gentle by bear standards, although humans have been increasingly expanding livestock grazing grounds and some rogue bears have developed a taste for cattle.

But human attacks? This is from a 1999 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature:

Spectacled bears are perhaps the least aggressive of all bear species towards humans. During four years of field work throughout Perú, B. Peyton (unpubl.) heard of only one human death caused by a spectacled bear that fell on a hunter after he shot it, and one woman who was bitten on the cheek after a surprise encounter with a bear in a cornfield.

An Andean bear escaped its Berlin Zoo enclosure in 2004 by paddling on a log across a moat then scaling a wall (this counts toward the industrious point). But get this: The escapee headed to the children's area of the zoo, and this is what it did:

Zoo employees eventually shot the bear with a tranquilizer gun, and the deputy director said he wasn't too worried about the escape. "Spectacled bears eat both vegetables and meat, but children tend not to be on their menu," he told the BBC.

Rare and unique

The giant panda is endangered, with just an estimated 1,200 in the wild and 300 in zoos. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't care about the Andean bear, too. With an estimated 6,000 to 20,000 bears left at most, they are considered a vulnerable species, which is the classification just below endangered.

The Andean bear is no ordinary bear. It's the only species of bear in all of South America and the lone survivor of the short-faced bear subfamily. Those bears roamed South America in greater numbers until about 10,000 years ago.

These bears are indeed special snowflakes; each one has its own distinct whitish pattern on the head, throat and chest. (Get it? They're "spectacled.") The markings are like Andean fingerprints.

Totally chill and know how to party

Andean bears play a special role in some South American indigenous cultures. Per the Smithsonian:

They are said to protect pilgrims, especially musicians and dancers, during their pilgrimage to Q'oylluriti (a festival held high in the Andes mountains). Andean bears are said to oversee or 'put order to' the festivities and are conduits between the Apus (gods of the mountains) and the people. Andean bears are known as being loving and happy, seeking harmony and balance in nature.

A successful event needs someone behind the scenes, making sure the musicians and dancers get to where they need to go and putting order to things. These bears are those people. And not only that, they're totally chill about it, as they seek harmony and balance in nature. These are not nervous and anxious event planners. Everyone will have a good time. Thanks, Andean bear.


Zoo asks public to help name two Andean bear cubs

Bigfoot: still imaginary, probably not an undiscovered species of bear

Famous giant panda fakes pregnancy, gets nice things

The newest species of catfish is named after Greedo from 'Star Wars'