Image: Grizzly bears
Matthew Brown  /  AP
Grizzly bears Loulou, Dolly, and Koda explore their outdoor enclosure at ZooMontana in Billings, Mont. on Friday, Dec. 20, 2010. The bears are set to make their public debut in the next several weeks after spending five months in quarantine. They were given to the zoo after their mother led the animals on a summer rampage through a Montana campground that killed one person and injured two more.
updated 12/17/2010 7:47:51 PM ET 2010-12-18T00:47:51

They will never escape their savage backstory, but three young bears whose mother led them on a rampage through a Montana campground embarked on a new career Friday: fuzzy zoo attractions.

As a posse of preschoolers pressed close as the glass would allow, the three grizzlies — now Dolly, Loulou and Koda — nosed around their new two-acre spread at ZooMontana.

Wildlife officials euthanized the bears' mother in July, after the bruin family was trapped just after a late-night attack outside Yellowstone National Park. A Michigan man was killed and two people were injured.

The young — now almost two years old — were with the marauding sow bear, but their precise role remains unknown. Investigators concluded the mother was leading her young to food.

Now, after five months in quarantine, the bears are taking their first forays this week around their compound in Billings, about 125 miles from the site of the attacks.

Friday's visit by the zoo's on-site preschool class was the largest audience so far. Public exhibitions will start in two to three weeks.

As they adjust to their new life inside an electrified fence, the bears are showing themselves little different from any other confined wild creatures, zoo representatives said.

"I'm teaching them how to scrounge for food," ZooMontana senior keeper Krystal Whetham said as the animals dug around for fruit hidden in their snowy enclosure. "They never will be in any kind of situation where they will have a conflict with people."

That sentiment was shared by the federal grizzly biologist who authorized the bears' removal from the wild amid speculation they, too, might be euthanized. Chris Servheen with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bears' previous behavior was "irrelevant" in a zoo setting.

A witness to the attacks said that he agreed with the young bears' placement in a zoo. Roland Flemming of Alamosa, Colo., said the animals "deserved a chance."

"Since it was my daughters' boyfriend that got bit, you would think I would say they ought to have been put down," Flemming said. "But they wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for the mama."

The bears are still skittish. But after showing up scraggly and emaciated they are now rounded in the belly and thick with fur.

Dolly and Loulou eventually inched close enough to get a good look at the children. Koda kept his distance, ducking into the bears' heated enclosure whenever someone made a sudden move.

Whetham said the three have developed distinct personalities: Dolly is the leader, Loulou the troublemaker and Koda prone to hang back while his sisters play.

Cassie Dennison, the 28-year-old aunt of one of the preschoolers, eyed the surrounding fence and asked if they might be able to climb up and out using a tree that towered over the compound. Reassured they could not, she said she was excited to see them for the first time yet had mixed feelings about the grizzlies' history.

"But it's not like if I killed you — animals are different," she said.

Although they are growing more used to humans, the bears still were quick to scatter Friday when startled by human footsteps crunching through the icy snow.

"They need to get used to it; we don't want them to go out there and have this terrible experience," Whetham said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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