NC Zoo's new polar bear habitat may have everything but bears

mquillin@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • Polar bears

    • Live in Arctic regions, where they hunt seals through openings in the sea ice called leads;

    • Range across five nations: the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway;

    • Can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds for males, 655 pounds for females;

    • Females usually bear two cubs at a time, though they may give birth to singles or triplets depending on their health;

    • May stay with their mothers for up to 2 1/2 years as cubs, learning how to survive in the harsh Arctic environment;

    • Live 15 to 18 years in the wild and can live into their late 30s in captivity.

    • Are listed as a threatened species, with a population estimated at 20,000 to 25,000 in 2008.

    Source: Polar Bears International

— Like developers who build subdivisions on speculation just before the market collapses, the N.C. Zoological Park suddenly faces the possibility of having no polar bears to move into its new, expanded exhibit when construction is finished next fall.

A global polar bear shortage is to blame.

One of the zoo’s bears, Aquila, was found dead in his holding quarters the morning of Sept. 10, the result of a ruptured stomach likely related to a hernia that veterinarians didn’t know he had.

The zoo’s other bear, Wilhelm – known as Willie to his keepers – has been staying at the Milwaukee Zoo since work on his exhibit in the North America section of the zoo began in the fall of 2011. At about 29 years old, Wilhelm is an elder bear, and it’s not clear whether it would be in his interest to put him through the stress of moving from Milwaukee back to North Carolina when the new habitat is done.

With polar bears on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened species list since 2008, there is a moratorium on taking them from the wild in Alaska, the only place in the U.S. where they can be found, unless they are orphaned babies or adults in such distress they likely would not survive without human intervention. Other countries where the bears range also have limits on their removal.

Until recently, zoos that have polar bears have not been breeding them because each zoo can hold only so many and few zoos have been building costly new polar bear habitats. Less than 20 percent of 223 facilities certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have polar bears.

The polar bear exhibit at the N.C. Zoo was one of the best in the country when it was built two decades ago, but standards for keeping Ursus maritimus in captivity have been raised since then.

A conservationist focus

Because conservation is one of the zoo’s missions, the park wanted to be able to accommodate breeding pairs and their cubs, so it committed to an $8.5 million enlargement of its habitat from a half-acre to about 2.5 acres, with added features such as a den where a mother could give birth and raise cubs.

At a conservation-minded zoo, “It’s not just a collection of animals for entertainment purposes,” said the zoo’s general curator, Ken Reininger.

To do the work, the state provided about $4 million from its capital expansion budget and about $2 million in repair-and-renovation funds. The private, nonprofit N.C. Zoo Society raised the rest from individual and corporate donors.

“If we had not done this work, we would not be eligible to get polar bears when there are any available,” said David Jones, the zoo’s director. “We would have had to make improvements to meet the minimum standards, and we don’t just go by minimum standards. The intent is always to exceed those.”

The new exhibit, taking shape on land directly behind the original one, will provide additional viewing areas for visitors, who will look out into a little bit of simulated Alaska: an alpine meadow in a rocky landscape with a 10-foot deep pool in the middle.

The bears, which roam great distances in the wild, will have more room to wander. They’ll have a rock cave to shelter under or climb onto, and an ice cave that will serve as a conduit between the original exhibit and the new one, where they will be on display at different times. When they’re in the original exhibit, the bears still can be seen swimming through the giant windows where hundreds of thousands of children have stood mesmerized.

What’s Plan B?

The construction includes a new interpretive center that will feature a melting glacier, where visitors will learn how warmer Arctic temperatures affect polar bears by reducing their productive hunting season, forcing them to go longer on less food. Large-screen televisions will offer additional information about the bears, which Polar Bears International says have been held in captivity at least since Ptolemy II’s reign in ancient Egypt, about 300 B.C.

If North Carolina can’t get a polar bear for its exhibit, Jones said, it’s possible the park could put another type of animal in the habitat until bears are available.

Zoo visitors are an increasingly sophisticated bunch, Jones said, and he believes they will begin to demand that animals kept in captivity be in the highest-grade facilities.

What North Carolina is doing now, he said, “Is what you’re going to see in all zoos tomorrow.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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