Patches the polar bear makes her debut at NC Zoo

mquillin@newsobserver.comJanuary 2, 2014 

— The cost of the ongoing expansion and renovation of the polar bear exhibit at the N.C. Zoological Park is $8.5 million. The first bear to go in it is priceless.

Zoo officials are celebrating the arrival of Patches, a 700-pound female who went on exhibit Christmas Day, putting a white furry face in a place that had been empty since September.

It’s still unclear whether the zoo will get additional polar bears to place in the renovated exhibit, which will be able to hold up to six bears when it’s finished this summer or fall.

“We’re tickled about having a bear back here,” said Jeff Owen, animal management supervisor for the section of the zoo that includes polar bears, seals and sea lions.

Polar bears have been a major attraction at the zoo since the opening of the North America section in 1994 with a set of polar bear triplets.

Aquila, the last of the original trio, died at the zoo in September at age 21. The zoo owned another polar bear, Wilhelm, who was staying at the Milwaukee County Zoo while work was underway at the N.C. facility. When Wilhelm stopped eating in October and was unable to stand, veterinarians at the Milwaukee zoo euthanized him. He was believed to be nearly 29 years old.

Patches, 26, was born at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., and had been on exhibit at the Erie Zoo in Pennsylvania since December 2007. She was brought to North Carolina in November when the Erie Zoo decided to get out of the polar bear business. It’s now in the process of renovating the space Patches occupied to house big cats.

When the zoo announced that Patches, known by name to regular visitors, would be leaving, “They were pretty disappointed,” said Kelly Miller, marketing and special events coordinator for the Erie Zoo. “It wasn’t just that we were losing Patches, but we were also telling people that Erie might not ever have polar bears again.”

Charismatic, but costly

While polar bears are among what zoo people call “the charismatic mega vertebrates” because of their popular appeal – they have been credited with doubling attendance when introduced at some parks – they are costly to maintain in captivity and, now, nearly impossible to obtain from the wild.

Rebecca Greenberg, program assistant for conservation and science at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md., said there are about 65 polar bears in 33 of the 222 zoos accredited by the association. Those bears are managed under a Species Survival Plan overseen by the association, which has such plans for nearly 600 kinds of animals.

Committees of volunteers maintain detailed records for all the animals and organize the movement of them between zoos and aquariums to prevent inbreeding, maintain sustainable populations and, when possible, to meet the desires of the facilities themselves.

The volunteers who craft the survival plan for polar bears are aware that the N.C. Zoo would like to have more bears when it finishes its new exhibit, but there is no indication yet whether any will be available.

Great outdoors

Meanwhile, most countries where polar bears live have stopped their removal, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a moratorium on importing polar bears from Canada except under the most limited circumstances, such as the discovery of an orphaned baby or a sick or injured adult that faces nearly certain death.

“If we can’t get one from another zoo,” said N.C. Zoo spokesman Rod Hackney, “we pretty much can’t get one.”

For now, though, the zoo does have one, and she’s already immensely popular, the first stop for many as they arrive.

Like all animals new to the park, Patches spent a month in quarantine after she arrived by refrigerated truck. Owen, who went to Pennsylvania to fetch her and talk with her keepers, said Erie officials told him that she preferred being outside. On arriving here, she steadfastly refused to go to her indoor quarters to allow keepers to clean her outdoor exhibit area.

Gradually, Owen said, keepers have helped Patches get used to the sounds of doors opening and closing, and to being locked up inside for short periods while the humans do their work in the exhibit.

“She’s doing great,” he said.

Expansion ongoing

Thursday, she seemed glad to have an indoor area to retreat to as a cold rain fell in her exhibit area. Throughout the afternoon, she would venture out as if to check the weather and, finding it unchanged, go back inside.

Meanwhile, work continued on the exhibit’s expansion from its current half-acre to a total of about 2.5 acres. Handcrafted rock faces rise on the new section’s perimeter, and trees are going in. The new exhibit also will include a den where a mother bear could tend cubs; a stream that runs from a few inches to about 4 feet deep; and new exhibit space for visitors, including a melting glacier that will help tell the story of polar bear habitat loss.

If no additional polar bears are available this year, the zoo could put other bears in the new exhibit. For a while, Patches may have it all to herself.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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