'Willie,' N.C. Zoo's polar bear, dies in Milwaukee after short illness

mquillin@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2013 

Wilhelm the polar bear, rescued as a teenager from a decrepit traveling zoo and brought to North Carolina where he became a star, has died. He was believed to be nearly 29 years old.

Wilhelm, known as “Willie” to his keepers at the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro, was euthanized Monday at the Milwaukee County Zoo, where he had been staying since September 2011. For the past couple of days, the bear wouldn’t eat and couldn’t stand, according Tim Wild, the Milwaukee zoo’s curator of large animals. During an exam, Wild said, veterinarians found fluid in Willie’s abdomen. A necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of his illness.

Willie was moved to Milwaukee so the N.C. Zoo could expand and renovate its polar bear exhibit. The zoo’s other polar bear, Aquila, stayed in Asheboro but died unexpectedly in September. Keepers found him dead in his quarters, and veterinarians said his stomach had ruptured.

Jeff Owen, supervisor of the Rocky Coast area of the zoo that includes the polar bear exhibit, was on the team that went to Puerto Rico to collect Willie and another bear, Masha, after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confiscated them from a traveling Mexican circus in 2002. The menagerie included a collection of eight polar bears kept in small cages inside a tractor-trailer in the Caribbean heat. At show times, the bears were ushered through a chute from the side of the truck into a caged ring, where they were forced to perform for an audience. When they were confiscated, the animals were lethargic and some had bacterial infections.

Once in the relatively spacious surroundings of the natural-habitat N.C. Zoo, Willie, especially, seemed to thrive. Owen said Willie gradually adjusted to a more healthful, higher-protein diet, but when keepers needed the lumbering animal to open his mouth so they could inspect his teeth, or raise his foot so they could check the pads, they gave him his favorite treat.

“Romaine lettuce,” Owen said. “He really enjoyed that.”

Owen said animal keepers are cautious about attributing human emotions to the critters they oversee, but Willie seemed to be happy in the years he spent at the N.C. Zoo.

“He had as much personality as any animal I've ever been around,” Owen said. “He was very active, as opposed to lying around all the time. He could preoccupy himself for hours on end. You’d see him going up against the glass (of his enclosure), looking at people, kind of interacting with them.”

Zoo visitors can go below the water level at the polar bear exhibit and view the animals in their pool through a glass as they swim and play. It’s like a giant aquarium but with furry mammals.

Because of Willie’s advancing age, zoo officials were inclined not to subject him to the stress of a move back to North Carolina when $8.5 million in improvements to the exhibit are completed, expected to be in fall 2014.

Now, the zoo faces the possibility of having no polar bears when the exhibit reopens. Polar bears are a threatened species, and 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 would likely die without human intervention. Other countries where the bears range also have limits on their removal.

The park is working with the managers of the Polar Bear Species Survival Program to see if a polar bear can be moved from another zoo. If the zoo can’t get one by next fall, it’s possible another type of animal could be put in the habitat until one becomes available.

Owen said he’s confident that Willie’s life was better after he was moved to North Carolina, and the bear certainly did his part to improve the lives of others.

“He served as a great ambassador for polar bears in the wild by helping people appreciate polar bears up close,” Owen said. “He really reached people.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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