Authored by Sarah Culton, communications manager for The Detroit Zoological Society.
The first time she saw Jebbie on an airport tarmac, Elizabeth Arbaugh, curator of mammals for the DZS, knew the small grizzly bear would always have her heart.
“He was so tiny. He fit into a small dog crate,” Arbaugh recalls with a smile on her face. “The moment I saw him, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to get you home.’”
Arbaugh met Jebbie, an orphaned grizzly bear cub, midway on his journey to the Detroit Zoo, where he spent more than a year growing up after being rescued in Alaska. During his time in Detroit, the cub captured the attention of DZS staff, guests and the greater community. Recently, the time came to say goodbye, and Jebbie went to live at a wildlife sanctuary where he has many acres to roam and play.
Though he may have physically left the Detroit Zoo, Arbaugh says Jebbie could never leave the space he carved out in the hearts of the staff who cared for him.
“His is a story that pulls at all of our heartstrings,” she says, emotion filling her voice. “We all miss him so much, but we know the wildlife sanctuary is a really good opportunity for him.”
Growing up at The Detroit Zoo
Found wandering alone by residents in Tok, Alaska, Jebbie was rescued in June 2021 by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG), the agency responsible for native wildlife in Alaska. As wild grizzly cubs spend up to three years with their mothers, Jebbie’s rescuers knew he would not survive on his own, and he was taken to the Alaska Zoo. Jebbie was eventually transported to the Detroit Zoo to receive care and sanctuary.
“He was full of life from the day he got here,” Arbaugh says. “He loved the water; he loved toys; he loved to run — he loved everything.”
Jebbie gained attention outside the Zoo when he was introduced to polar bear cub Laerke. Two days after birth, Laerke had a medical emergency and had to be removed from the den she shared with her mother, Suka, and sister, Astra. After months of round-the-clock care by DZS staff, she moved to the Arctic Ring of Life where she could see the other polar bears and begin being weaned from human care. However, it was clear from the reactions of Suka and Astra that returning Laerke to her family was not an option. After Jebbie’s rescue, Laerke had an opportunity for companionship and socialization with another bear.
After a slow introduction, the two cubs lived inside the Arctic Ring of Life, where they swam, played and grew up together. The two bears’ bond drew international media coverage, and the pair became a favorite among guests who traveled far and wide to see the two in person.
Though their companionship touched the hearts of many, Zoo experts always knew the cubs would eventually need to be separated. That day came nearly seven months later once Jebbie grew larger than Laerke and began playing more roughly than the polar bear would sometimes like.
“Though they eventually lived apart, Jebbie and Laerke provided each other with much-needed socialization,” Arbaugh says. “Their welfare was always our top priority, and we are happy we could provide these two cubs with a friend during a critical time in their development.”
Finding a New Home
Jebbie remained at the Detroit Zoo for several months after he and Laerke separated. Here, he continued to grow and thrive as a fan-favorite among staff and guests alike. However, the animal care team who looked after him knew he would likely move to a wildlife sanctuary at some point. So, when the possibility came for Jebbie to live at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, Arbaugh knew it was an opportunity the grizzly bear cub needed to take.
“In his new home, Jebbie has so much room to be a bear,” Arbaugh says. “He can explore, dig, forage, live with other animals and express young bear behaviors.”
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the world dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. Encompassing more than 10,500 acres of land and more than 120 habitats, the sanctuary provides expert care and rehabilitation, exceptional diets and enrichment, and large spaces in which its rescued animals can roam.
Since Jebbie arrived at the sanctuary in September, sanctuary staff say he is doing well and thriving in his new home.
“Jeb is doing great, and he loves the three other young grizzlies who live in the habitat,” says Patrick Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary. “There are a couple of older females in there as well, and a couple of older males, but the kids get along with everyone, so Jeb is very happy and loves swimming in his small lake.”
Though she already misses Jebbie, Arbaugh says she is happy to have played a role in helping the little cub she met on an airport tarmac grow into a healthy bear.
“He needed someone to save him, and we were able to take him in and give him a home for as long as possible,” she says, wiping away a happy tear. “He’s my favorite guy, and I’m so happy for him.”