Polar Bears Home for the Holidays
Five beleaguered polar bears experienced their first stress-free Christmas in many years, following their rescue from a Puerto Rican circus in early November. WilhelmThe seizure ended a months-long standoff between animal-rights groups and the Mexican-based Suarez Brothers Circus. During their time with the circus, the bears were confined to small cages and forced to perform in the sweltering tropical heat.
U.S. authorities confiscated the bears because the substandard conditions in which they were kept violated the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The bears spent two weeks in quarantine before boarding a FedEx flight for the continental U.S., arriving in late November at homes arranged by Polar Bears International Advisory Council member Diana Weinhardt.
"Three wonderful facilities offered to take them," says Weinhardt, who chairs the American Zoo Association's Bear Taxon Advisory Group. "The Detroit Zoo took the female bear, the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, took two of the males, and the remaining two males were flown to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheville."
Sadly, a sixth bear, Royale, died enroute. "We knew this was a possibility," says Weinhardt. "The bears were living in poor conditions, and without a medical history on them we didn't know how they would take the flight."
A seventh bear, Alaska, was rescued last spring when authorities discovered that the circus had falsified her documents. She has settled into a new home at the Baltimore Zoo.
All four zoos report that the bears are discovering how to be bears again. They are being weaned from a diet of that primarily consisted of dog chow to one that includes raw fish and polar bear kibble. They are also learning to swim in deep water, forage for food, and play in the snow.
Ben Gross, senior manager of public relations at the Baltimore Zoo, says that Alaska, who was rescued last March, took time getting used to the amount of freedom that she's allowed at the zoo. But she now plays and explores and has become a bit of a ham.
"When we had our first big snow, she took to it like a puppy," he says. "She was sliding through it, flinging it, and having a great old time."
She has also developed a relationship with Magnet, the resident male. "They're getting along famously and have even made some efforts at mating," Gross says.
He adds that he's looking forward to introducing both bears to the zoo's new polar bear exhibit, which will open in October with a Tundra Buggy in the center of the display.
Kenneth and Boris
Staff biologist Mike Messersmith of the Point Defiance Zoo says that Tacoma's two bears, Kenneth and Boris, are adjusting to their new life since their November rescue. They have been cleaned up and "now look like polar bears again."
The bears are learning to enjoy the enrichment provided in their new home. Boris, the larger of the two, took to the water immediately and spends hours swimming in the chilled saltwater pool in the quarantine area. Kenneth was far more cautious. "At first, he would test the water," says Messersmith, "but was afraid to swim." He finally overcame his fear, though, and now plunges in with gusto.
Both bears have also made the transition to a better diet. Marine Mammal Manager Traci Belting says that the two "had been eating the equivalent of polar bear junk food--mainly lots of white bread and local produce." But they're now accustomed to a diet that's roughly half fish and half polar bear chow.
Belting says that the bears were introduced to the main exhibit area on January 27th, after Boris had recovered from a mild bacterial infection. "Being in that hot, humid environment in Puerto Rico really wreaked havoc on these bears," she says. "But the good news is, there's a happy ending."
BarleAt the Detroit Zoo, polar bear keeper Else Poulsen says that Barle, a female, had a chance to explore part of her new home but is briefly back in quarantine due to a case of ringworm.
"Just before we knew she had ringworm she was introduced to the tundra enclosure, which is all natural soil, grasses, and plants," says Poulsen. "She loved it. She walked carefully over the substrate, especially the rocky areas. She hasn't had much experience with different surfaces, so she's been very careful in her movements. She's experiencing everything new as if she were a cub, with joy and fascination."
Interestingly, Poulsen says that Barle would not respond to her name during her first days at the zoo. "But little by little she understood that it was worth her while to come when we called--we would give her treats and tell her that she was a good girl and that we wanted her here," Poulsen says. "At first, she would crawl over to see what we had for her. We think this was because she was used to such small quarters that she thought it was futile to get up."
Poulsen says that Barle will soon be able to go outside again, and the zoo will start to test introductions between her and her new roommates. "Barle will be happy about that because she's been asking to go out," says Poulsen, "and we've already had an indication that she'll become very good friends with one of our female bears named Sissy."
Masha and Wilhem
The final two males, Masha and Wilhelm, both take pleasure in plunging into the large pool at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. "They have really taken to the water," says Public Affairs Specialist Tom Gillespie. "They were hesitant at first but now it's wonderful to see."
He adds that the bears were extremely undernourished when they first arrived. "They were in very bad shape," he says, "so one of our first goals was to fatten them up. They weren't used to eating a proper diet."
Finally, though, they're starting to put on weight and are exercising more. "During their time with the circus, they didn't have a way to exercise," he says.
For more information on the rescued bears, including ways you can help, visit the zoo Web sites at: www.baltimorezoo.org, www.detroitzoo.org, www.nczoo.org, and www.pdza.org.
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