It took Thor the sloth bear awhile to warm up to the idea of a large gingerbread house in his enclosure at the Little Rock Zoo Wednesday.
But when he mustered the courage to get a closer look — and a whiff of the Christmas treats adorning it including honey, coconut scrapings, sugar donuts and candy canes — it became abundantly clear the 9-year-old bear appreciated the holiday gesture.
The Little Rock Zoo is closed to the public on Christmas, but zookeepers were on duty Wednesday to make sure the facility's animals are fed and cared for like any other day. And for some of the animals, like Thor, that Christmas care came with an added festive treat.
"I think every year it's something the keepers look forward to and it's something the animals look forward to as a well," said Susan Altrui, a spokesman for the zoo who was on hand for the Christmas surprises. "It's always fun to do something special on Christmas. The keepers have to be here and it's great to see the animals having fun. And the keepers enjoy that a lot too."
Thor seemed hesitant at first when he emerged from his nighttime pen and found the gingerbread house, a gigantic cardboard box covered with treats keepers knew he'd like. It even featured holiday decor like a drawn-on wreath and a small cardboard chimney attached to the top.
When he got closer and realized the box was covered with sugary treats, Thor began methodically eating them off. He did startle and jump back once when he pressed a little too hard and coconut scrapings fell off the roof around him.
Other animals weren't as invested in the Christmas spirit.
The penguins got their breakfast of fish with nutrient supplements added to the gills just like a normal day. The zoo's two lions — Sydney and Bakari — came out of their enclosures to find two wrapped presents containing enrichment toys. Bakari rubbed against the larger of the boxes and knocked it on its top, but he and Sydney then relaxed under a tree and showed little interest in opening their gifts.
"Today, the lions were a little shy," Altrui said. "Probably later on when we're all gone, they'll play around with that box some more, rip it to shreds and play with the toys inside."