Brown bear Dushi lays on the forest floor near a tree

Awake or Just Taking a Break? 

How do we know when our bears are done with their winter rest?


The line between being asleep and awake is fuzzy and vague. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when any one of us definitively becomes conscious after a good night’s sleep. For most people, there is more accurately a period of awakening. The bears at our sanctuaries experience something similar when they are awakening from their winter rest.

Winter Rest

Starting in the late fall, brown bears enter into a period of respite. While many call this behavior “hibernation,” a more accurate term is “torpor,” which describes a lighter period of rest than true hibernation. After eating and building up extra weight in the summer and fall, bears will dig or find themselves a cozy den and enter into this period of torpor. The bears’ breathing slows, as does the frequency of their heartbeat, and their body temperature drops; however, the bears are easily woken and able to defend themselves if the need arises. Torpor lasts from anywhere from 1 to 8 months, during which time a bear might not eat, drink, or pass waste.

At our sanctuaries, many bears are experiencing winter rest for the first time. Bears in captivity are often not able to enter torpor because of the lack of nutrition and species-appropriate surroundings. Amazingly, once they are safe at our sanctuaries, most of our bears are able to rediscover their natural instincts and experience this important period of rest in winter.

Brown Bear Ero napping in snow at Prishtina

Awakening in Spring

Because FOUR PAWS operated 6 bear sanctuaries where rescued European Brown Bears often hibernate, we have a front row seat to the action (or lack there-of). Once spring rolls around, each bear will awaken in their own time, usually between the beginning of March and the end of April. We even have a friendly competition, March Napness, where you can guess which bear at our sanctuaries will sleep the longest!

But how do we know when a bear is truly awake? Interestingly, there is not an easy answer. It is hard to pinpoint a moment, hour, or even day that the bears awaken; more accurately, there is a period of awakening. As this period begins, the bears are first spotted outside of their dens for short spans of time and then return to their dens for more rest. As our caretakers see the bears more and more often, and the animals start to spend longer periods of time outside their dens, we know they are getting closer to being officially “awake.” 

Brown bear in field of flowers at Arosa Bear Sanctuary

Bracket Busters: The official rules for awakening in the March Napness Competition

The experts at each of our six competing bear sanctuaries worked together to come up with an agreed upon definition. To start, they discussed the various signs and behaviors that ensure a bear is “asleep”:  

  • No defecation
  • No urination
  • To save energy:
    • Extremely reduced activities
    • Resting in a climatically optimal location

So, one proposed way of deciding whether a bear was awake, would require getting out the binoculars to look for bear feces on the ground! This strategy seemed a bit unrealistic to everyone, as our sanctuaries provide the bears with a lot of space to roam and areas to hunker away for privacy.  (Not to mention that searching for bear feces did not seem like the most appealing task!)

Eventually, all the sanctuaries agreed that we would use the following definition: A bear is awake when they are active in their outdoor enclosure for five consecutive days.

Once the bears have been active for these five days, they will typically start to eat their first meals and grow more energetic over time.

While we are rooting for our sound sleepers in the March Napness competition, we love to see our early risers emerge to enjoy the spring sunshine too! After all these bears have been through, they deserve all the comfort and joy they can get. So sleep late or rise early, our ursine friends; either way you are winners in our hearts!

Learn more about our March Napness competition, and follow our social media channels for all the latest news!

March Napness 2024 Bracket

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