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'A part of our family': ZooMontana grieves loss of Bruno the grizzly bear

Bruno was a 'community favorite'
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Posted at 8:38 AM, Oct 20, 2023

BILLINGS — Bruno, an estimated 23-year-old beloved grizzly bear at ZooMontana, was euthanized Thursday. It’s a decision the zoo says was necessary, but not easy.

Bruno the grizzly bear touched the lives of many zoo visitors.

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Bruno, known for his droopy lip, teddy bear ears and large stature, was a staple at ZooMontana for 15 years.

"I like Bruno," said Alex Brady when asked which bear at the zoo was his favorite on Friday. "He's like a bigger teddy bear."

Alex Brady
Alex Brady

Bruno first came to ZooMontana 15 years ago after being rescued from a home in Tennessee, where he was illegally kept outside in a small dog kennel.

"He was cute and playful," Madison Brady, Alex's sister, said on Friday. “Bruno was really nice."

Madison Brady
Madison Brady

But lately, Bruno hadn’t been feeling well. The zoo had been monitoring his health, which had been in decline for some time. It had to make the difficult decision to euthanize him, stating his health struggles, which it linked to the lack of care he received in Tennessee, were too severe to manage.

"He was found living in a backyard in Tennessee. Literally in an 8x8 dog kennel," said Jeff Ewelt, the executive director of ZooMontana, on Friday. "I mean, just an awful situation for this animal. We don’t know where those individuals got him... When an animal like that is in the care of someone who really doesn’t know what they’re doing, you end up really kind of creating a really bad future for that animal. His nutrition was terrible which led to these health issues, and primarily what he really suffered from was arthritis."

Ewelt said it’s a day the zoo knew was coming but could never truly be prepared for.

“Losing an animal that has such a community-wide love, like Bruno did, it’s a devastating day, you know? And we knew when we brought Bruno in he was going to have challenges as he got older. But it certainly doesn’t make a day like yesterday any easier," Ewelt said. "Again, losing an animal like that, he’s a part of our family. And an animal that, like I said, so many people love and we spent 15 years with, it hurts. It hurts deep."

Jeff Ewelt
Jeff Ewelt

To help staff process the loss, the zoo brought in a grief counselor as many caregivers created a bond with the bear and might need a little help navigating their sadness.

“Having a grief counselor here, it was a no-brainer for us. Losing somebody like this is like a member of the family. To have the opportunity to have a great relationship with the therapist that we do, who put down everything to be here for us was amazing," Ewelt said. "We know that everybody needs that, right? We all need somebody to talk to and maybe somebody that’s independent that you don’t typically talk to. And that was such an important thing for our staff and something that, it wasn’t even a thought to not to consider that."

Those caregivers are keeping a close eye on Bruno’s roommate, Ozzy, and will shower him with extra time and enrichment as he adjusts to the loss of his 'big brother'.

“Ozzy obviously we’re worried about. Obviously, staff and the human component of it is difficult, but an animal that was so dependent on Bruno, he was like a big brother to Ozzy. So we’re really concerned about him," Ewelt said. "I can assure you that our caregivers are showering him with time today. A lot of enrichment. A lot of guests have mentioned he’s kind of coming and going out of the building. Now we know it’s busy today and we don’t want people not to see Ozzy, but we want him to be on his schedule. It’s so important to us. And so obviously he’s doing okay, I think maybe even a little better than we expected."

But Ozzy won’t be alone for long.

“Typically we wouldn’t bring an animal in that soon after such a monumental loss, but we just felt like for him, it made sense. And so we are excited to bring these cubs in just to kind of give him something to put his mind on,” Ewelt said. "These cubs will come in in honor of Bruno’s legacy. He most certainly will not be forgotten, we’ll try to figure out what way can we not just in our memories memorialize him, but maybe some physical way. But we know that good times are ahead. For Ozzy, for our caregivers, for our guests here at the zoo. We’ll get past this, but certainly will not forget the legacy that Bruno left for all of us."

Bruno swimming
Bruno swimming

Two orphaned cubs were recently rescued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in northwestern Montana and will make their debut at the zoo sometime in November, after a lengthy and mandatory quarantine.

Ewelt stressed Bruno's memory will live on at the zoo.

“You know what I love most about Bruno? Bruno was by far one of my favorite animals here at the zoo. There’s something about his droopy lip that I always loved. I just loved it. But Bruno didn’t like me. And the biggest reason is, you know I was one of the guys that would always bring some heavy equipment down, and what have you, he wasn’t a fan of that. And so despite the fact that I wanted him to love me, he didn’t, and that was okay," Ewelt said. "We knew Ozzy would be a little brother to Bruno and vice versa, big brother to Ozzy. And the day we put them together was something we’ll never forget. Bruno jumped on top of Ozzy, sat on him for a couple hours, and essentially said, ‘I’ll deal with you, but I’m in charge.’ That’s exactly what their dynamic was like."

While the loss of Bruno is devastating, ZooMontana and its patrons are thankful for the years they had with him and are looking forward to welcoming the new cubs to the family.

“It makes me feel good and bad because it’s pretty sad that he died, but it makes me happy that he might be having fun in Heaven,” Madison Brady said.

To learn more about Bruno's passing, click here.

Looking into the bear exhibit
Looking into the bear exhibit

(ZooMontana Press Release)

ZooMontana staff and volunteers bid an emotional farewell to an iconic resident Thursday morning. Bruno the Grizzly Bear was humanely euthanized after several health battles became too severe to manage.

The estimated 23-year-old bear’s health issues were linked to the lack of care he received as a young bear, when he was illegally held in a private, Tennessee backyard within a small dog kennel.

Bruno, known for his droopy lip, teddy bear ears and large stature, was a staple at ZooMontana for 15 years. He arrived at the Zoo in 2008 from Zoo Knoxville, who agreed to bring Bruno in after he was discovered being illegally held. ZooMontana Curator Travis Goebel and Lead North America Caregiver Krystal Whetham have both been with Bruno during his life at ZooMontana.

“Due to his inadequate nutrition and care as a young bear, we were pretty certain he wouldn’t see a typical Zoo bear lifespan of 30+, however, we are thrilled that we got the 15 years we did with him. Our caregivers and veterinarians have done a great job providing him exceptional care over that time”, said Goebel. He added, “Not only was he an incredible ambassador for his species, but he is truly loved by the community.”

Animal caregivers are keeping an extra-close eye on ZooMontana’s other Grizzly Bear, Ozzy, Bruno’s roommate, and pal, as he adjusts to Bruno being gone. To help him with the loss, caregivers will shower Ozzy with time and enrichment. The Zoo has no doubt Ozzy will miss his “big brother.”

In addition, administrators at the Zoo agreed to welcome in two orphaned grizzly cubs from Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Executive Director Jeff Ewelt explains this decision: “Typically, we would wait to bring new animals in so soon after a loss of this magnitude. However, we felt it was in the best interest of Ozzy to bring these cubs in. He seems to really enjoy companionship, something we know these cubs can provide him”.

The cubs are slated to arrive at the Zoo within the month but will not be viewable until after a lengthy and mandatory quarantine. They are currently being cared for by the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone.

ZooMontana will have a grief counselor onsite to help staff process this monumental loss. Bruno will be sorely missed by many.

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Bruno at ZooMontana