Editor's note: The story has been updated to correct the opening day of the polar bear exhibit to Thursday, Oct. 23.
The N.C. Zoo will open its first major addition in years Oct. 23 week when it unveils $8.5 million worth of renovations to its polar bear exhibit.
It may even have a new bear to introduce to the public.
At one time, it looked as thought the completed exhibit might have no polar bears at all.
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When the park began work on the project in 2011, it hoped to one day have as many as six polar bears that would be exhibited in a state-of-the-art facility, with 2.5 acres of land area, a stream and pool, an ice cave and a den where a mother could give birth and raise cubs.
But a worldwide polar bear shortage, blamed in part on a loss of habitat and hunting grounds due to polar ice melt, has nearly stopped the taking of animals from the wild except in the case of orphaned cubs or severely distressed bears that could not survive on their own. That leaves zoos to get polar bears from one another, either through breeding programs or when a zoo decides to close a polar bear exhibit, which are costly to maintain.
Fewer than 20 percent of the 223 zoos certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have polar bears; there are now about 60 animals in captivity in accredited North American zoos.
North Carolina had two polar bears in 2011, but one, Aquila, died in September 2013 with a ruptured stomach. Within a few weeks, the zoo lost the other, Wilhelm, who had been staying at a zoo in Milwaukee while the work was done on the exhibit here. Wilhelm stopped eating and had to be euthanized.
In late 2013, the zoo acquired Patches, a 26-year-old polar bear who had been at the Erie Zoo in Pennsylvania when that zoo decided to close its polar bear exhibit.
At the end of September, the zoo also got Anana, a 14-year-old female who will spend at least two years in North Carolina while her home, Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, revamps its polar bear exhibit.
Like all animals new to the park, Anana has been under quarantine. She has not yet been introduced to Patches, and keepers have not been able to say whether she will be ready for a public debut next week.
Improvements to the exhibit at the zoo in Asheboro also include new amenities for visitors, such as a melting glacier that will illustrate and explain the habitat loss.
About 60 percent of the financing for the project came from public money. The N.C. Zoo Society, which raises money from corporate and individual donors, contributed the rest.
The new exhibit triples the size of the original one by expanding to land behind it.