North Carolina’s polar bear couple is feeling the love, with zookeepers hoping that the third year of breeding for the Arctic pair could bring tiny bundles of joy later this year.
This is the third breeding season for Nikita, a 1,203-pound, 10-year-old male, and Anana, a 796-pound, 18-year-old female, since they became a couple, said Jennifer Ireland, the North Carolina Zoo’s curator of mammals.
There are only 11 breeding pairs of polar bears in the entire nation, Ireland said, so cubs – usually born in twos – would be incredibly significant to the population and the future of the vulnerable species.
Valentine’s Day falls in the middle of polar bear mating season, which is the only time of the year the normally solitary animals get together.
“We keep them separated the rest of the year since we’re trying to replicate as natural behaviors as we can,” Ireland said. “They tell us when they’re ready to be apart.”
Beginning in the middle of January, Nikita let his handlers know he was getting lonely and ready to spend time with his sweetheart.
“He makes these ‘chuffing’ sounds,” Ireland said.
So keepers let the bears see each other and gave them side access to each other with mesh in between, to slowly let the couple acclimate. Nikita began to woo Anana.
“He brings her gifts to get her attention,” Ireland said. “She’s not quite as excited as him, but she tolerates him. He’s very much a gentleman and stays very close to her.”
An attentive beau, Nikita brings Anana fish or toys in the hopes of getting on her good side, Ireland said.
“He does nice things for her like, ‘Here, this is for you, let’s be friends now,’ ” Ireland said, laughing. “And then we’ll see them snuggled up together in the habitat.”
Nikita doesn’t push Anana too much early on, but when she’s close to being ready to breed, “he pretty much stays glued to her” for about a week, Ireland said.
And that week should be coming up soon. Any time between now and the beginning of March, keepers may see the bears get even closer.
The bears have had two other breeding seasons together. The first year they were just getting to know each other, and keepers didn’t see that many of those sweet, cuddly moments, Ireland said. The second year was a bit better, and keepers saw “a lot of promising stuff.”
Nikita was a bit clumsy early on, and Anana was not quite as tolerant.
“It sounds silly, but they’re developing as a couple,” Ireland said. “Their technique is perfecting. It takes practice. They know each other a lot better and they know what to do and what to expect from each other.”
The zoo is very hopeful for cubs this year, though it’s hard to tell when a female is pregnant. Even Anana’s keepers may not know until cubs are born. Polar bear cubs are born around the same time each year – in November.
Since polar bear cubs are incredibly small and helpless early on, it could be months before the public would get to see the little ones.
If Anana were to give birth, she would be carefully monitored in her den by keepers on a video feed, Ireland said.
“We know the public would be excited if we were to have cubs,” said Ireland, who has been with the zoo for 20 years. “But if we had our babies, I think our keepers would lose their minds with happiness. We really are all hoping that this could be the year.”
Less than 20 percent of American Zoological Association-accredited zoos have polar bears, and only 60 polar bears are on exhibit in the United States. This means that all polar bears in zoos are genetically important for the species.
Nikita was born at the Toledo Zoo. He arrived in Kansas City in 2010 when he was 3 years old, then moved to North Carolina in 2016. Anana, whose name means “beautiful” in Inuit, was born at the Seneca Park Zoo (Rochester, N.Y.) in November 1999. She arrived at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in 2001 and was moved to the North Carolina Zoo in September 2014.