Saturday, June 16, 2018

Happy Father's Day to Victor

Victor enjoys his Project Polar home.

Serving as the elder statesman of polar bears at Yorkshire Wildlife Park in the UK, Victor is enjoying his retirement in the company of an unusual polar bear group, with Victor and three younger males sharing several large rambling habitats.


The rocky slopes of Project Polar.
The senior bear at YWP, Victor, has fathered 13 cubs with three different mothers. One of his current companions is his grandson, Pixel.


Victor roaming along the lake
Victor was born in Rostock Germany in December of 1998, so he will be 20 years old this fall, still fairly young. But he has fathered so many cubs, and his sister Victoria (1996), Vilma (2002, died last year), twins Valeska and Venus (2004) have also given us lovely cubs, and the family of their parents Churchill and Vienna are well represented in the polar bear population. The sixth of the "V" cubs, Vitus (2000) is considered sterile. In the summer of 2014, Victor was sent to Doncaster to the YWP as the first bear in Project Polar. 


Victor on the rolling rocky hillside
The ladies in his life

Victor has spent most of his life in Ouwehands Zoo in Rhenen, the Netherlands, where he first shared quarters with older polar bear lady Vera (21), who gave birth to his son Rocky in the fall of 2002, when Victor was just four years old. (Rocky now lives in a zoo in Belgium with Blanche and their daughter Qannik born in 2011.)

2002 was a very busy year at Ouwehands Zoo. In March, mother polar bear Huggies returned to Rhenen from her stay in Sweden, with her 4 month old daughter Freedom. In August, just before Rocky was born, Victor was sent to the Amsterdam Zoo, where he lived for a year in a very sad bear pit, to allow Huggies room to care for her cub. In December, shortly after Victor left, Vera gave birth to Rocky.

I don't have a lot of information about Vera, just that she was born in 1981, and died at age 27 in 2008 in Skandanavisk Dyreparke in Kolind, Denmark, which opened their polar bear habitat in 2006. Rocky was her only cub, I believe.

Huggies
Huggies was wildborn on Wrangle Island in Russia in 1993, and rescued as a young cub from an ice floe. She was sponsored by the diaper company Kimberly Clark and flown to the Netherlands, where she lived for four years, then moved to Kolmarden Sweden, where she gave birth to daughter Freedom in December of 2001. Then she and the cub moved back to Ouwehands in early 2002. months later.

Freedom with cubs

More cubs

Huggies with one of Freedom's cubs at Ouwehands Zoo
Between mother and daughter, Huggies and Freedom, Victor sired a dozen cubs.

In 2005, Huggies created a sensation in Ouwehands when she gave birth to triplets, Henk, Ewa and Jelle, all three named after keepers. Henk is now in Nuenen, the Netherlands, Ewa is in Orsa in Sweden, and Jelle is in St. Felicien in Canada.

Henk, one of the triplets, now in Nuenen
Freedom gave birth to Sprinter in December of 2007.  In February 2010 he moved to that tiny enclosure in Amsterdam, for just two months, but then to a wonderful big place in Hannover, Germany.


Sprinter, on top, inherited the fierce large head
of Victor's father Churchill.
 He now lives in Hannover Germany with his friend Nanuq
Huggies gave birth to Walker and Swimmer in December, 2008, filmed and shown as part of BBC's Frozen Planet. Swimmer stole everyone's hearts in the coming out of the den video put out by the zoo, for he was so tiny compared to big Walker. Then there was that very sad Sunday in March, 2009, when Swimmer did not come out of the water after swimming with his mother. Something in his chest had burst, and he had died. Huggies retrieved his little body and the polar bear family grieved.
Walker on the right, with his friend Arktos
in Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland
So there was just Walker. When he was 2 years old, in May 2010, Walker moved to Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland where he lives with his friend Arktos, and across the park are Victor's sister Victoria and her cub Hamish.

So by summer of 2010, it was just Victor, Huggies and Freedom at Ouwehands. 
Freedom
But then in November, 2010 Freedom gave birth to Sesi and Siku (later Taiko).  The next year it was Huggies' turn.

Huggies
In December 2011 Huggies had twins, Lynn and Luka. At this point, the two moms, mother and daughter, were dealing with four cubs between them, and it seemed to work to raise them together in the large enclosure with that wonderful deep pool. These were amazing days, with Freedom and her older cubs, and Huggies and her younger cubs, splashing and playing for the visitors and on the Explore webcam broadcast around the world.  Two moms and four cubs all living together.

Eventually, these four cubs grew up on went on their way.  Sesi moved to Mulhouse in France and Siku became Taiko and went to LaFleche in France. Lynn moved to Vienna and then to Copenhagen.  Luka went to Wuppertal in Germany. 


Victor's son Luka in Wuppertal
Victor had played his part, as father to so many cubs, but while the moms raised the babies, like other polar bear fathers, he spent his days in the old enclosures off to the side, alone.

Akiak and Sura with mom Freedom
In August of 2014, Victor retired to Doncaster in the UK but not before adding to his legacy. In November 2014, a few months after Victor left, Akiak and Sura were born to Freedom.

Victor has grandchildren too. 

Henk fathered Pixel and Noordje, who were born in 2012, and Nickie and Simona, born in 2015, in Nuenen, with Frimas as Mom. Five year old Pixel now lives in YWP with his granddad Victor.


Two of Victor's companions at YWP are his grandson Pixel, on the left,
and Russian bear Nisson, on the right.
Sesi is mother to Nanuq in Mulhouse Zoo in France, with Vicks as the father.
Victor's daughter Sesi, with his granddaughter Nanuq
Life in YWP


Young Nobby carefully approaches Victor
Victor enjoys his naps and wandering around the many wild acres at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. For a long time, he and Nobby did not get along, or maybe Nobby was afraid of him, but now harmony is restored.


Victor with a chunk of meat. Nobby sniffs, then walks away.
 He would never steal meat from Victor.

Victor chases after Nobby.

Victor catching up with Nobby
Project Polar area has three large enclosures with large ponds, and they are planning to open another area, to make this the largest polar bear habitat in Europe.


Victor at the lake.
Victor with his keepers. Sometimes he likes to be inside.


The bears can choose to be out and about, or to be in the nighttime shelter, whenever they like. There are often ducks to chase, and many good things to eat and play with are hidden here and there by the keepers. Life is good in retirement.

Victor on the move.
In another story, I will tell about the three young bears who are companions to Victor, as the park looks forward to welcoming a new bear from Korea to Project Polar.

Taking a stroll through Project Polar.
 The habitat resembles the Canadian Tundra with its terrain and plants.

Handsome Victor

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Best friends in the Highlands


Arktos and Walker

Best Buddies in Scotland, that defines Team Walker and Arktos.


Arktos and Walker have quite a bromance going on


Walker and Arktos in the large habitat at HWP.
 The bears could choose to put plenty of space between them,
 but they would rather be close together.


Arktos with a bit of meat

Arktos and Walker are inseparable
 They do not like to be separated, and when Arktos went to the other side of the park to stay for a few months with Victoria last year (for breeding), Walker really missed his friend, and was so happy to have him back.

Arktos at left, and Walker at right

 That is not to say that they don't have their squabbles, but they quickly make up.


Walker and Arktos in a mini-battle at lunchtime.
 It was over in about two minutes.

Click on this link below to see a very short squabble between the best friends.


When we were there at feeding time on a windy afternoon in mid May, they growled and tussled and stood up to each other, and then it was over, and they were friends again. We were told that it was because it was the end of breeding season, and they are still a little competitive, as males living together might be. Even though Victoria and baby Hamish were all the way across the park, the two male bears could still smell her. It's instinct.



Arktos and Walker at the fence during keeper talk
 Unlike some polar bears who live together but don't really interact much, Walker and Arktos seemed to be always together, even cuddling up to sleep. When one goes this way, the other one follows.

Mercedes

A little history: Highland Wildlife Park was founded in a wild national park northwest of Edinburgh in 1972 and populated with native species. As years went by, the mission changed to include northern and mountainous species. The first polar bear in Highland Wildlife Park was elderly Mercedes in 2009. At that time she was living in Edinburgh Zoo, the only polar bear in the U.K.

Her story: At the age of three, back in her native Churchill, Manitoba in Canada, Polar Bear Number 39 had been deemed a nuisance bear for raiding garbage and hanging around town. They painted the number on her, took her a great distance away, and hoped for the best, but she returned, caused trouble, and returned again. And again.

File photo of Mercedes in Canada
Under the three strikes and you're out rule, she was sentenced to be shot. However, the Mercedez-Benz company offered to pay for the transportation for this young bear, and Edinburgh Zoo offered her a home to live with their male polar bear Barney.  In 1984 she was flown to Scotland, where she lived for 25 years as the main attraction of Edinburgh Zoo. She even had two cubs. She was quite famous. Barney died after choking on a child's plastic toy thrown into the enclosure, and then she was alone.  Her hillside habitat at the Edinburgh Zoo was small, and she paced. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which oversees both Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, looked for a better solution for Mercedes. 

In 2009 Mercedes was moved to Highland Wildlife Park to enjoy her retirement years, where she had a beautiful spacious area of over four natural acres in which to roam. The Scottish Army even pitched in to help build the enclosure designed just for her. Mercedes loved the deep snow and the ice on the pond during her first winter.

The enclosure was designed to be much lower in cost to build and operate than a standard zoo habitat, taking advantage of the natural terrain, and also having much less of an environmental impact, while giving the bears a great deal more space to roam in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.

Walker and Arktos

In 2010,  two  year old Walker arrived from the Netherlands to keep her company, but she was not anxious to play with an active young cub. Her arthritis was bothering her, so after some rocky introductions, zoo staff decided to keep the bears separate. 

In 2011, due to rapidly failing health and signs of senility, Mercedes was put to sleep at the age of 30, a good age for a polar bear to reach. And thus Walker was alone.

But not for long. Arktos, about a year older than Walker, was living in Hannover Germany with his twin brother Nanuq and another young male, Sprinter. In 2012 Arktos moved to HWP as a companion to Walker. The boys quickly became best friends and playmates.


Arktos in front, and Walker
Walker was born in Ouwehands Zoo, Rhenen, the Netherlands in December of 2008. Walker was famous from birth, for his birth (and that of his twin), was filmed and featured in the David Attenborough BBC television series, "Frozen Planet." Walker and little brother Swimmer (both named after Kimberly Clark diapers, the rescue sponsor of their mother Huggies) made their public debut in March, and tiny Swimmer captured many hearts, for he was about one third the size of his brother. About a week later, poor Swimmer died during a swimming lesson, as some inborn weakness caused something to burst. Huggies and Walker were seen grieving for hours.

Walker's father Victor, who now lives in retirement
in Yorkshire Wildlife Park.
 He is younger brother to Victoria, mother of Hamish at HWP. 
Walker, whose father was Victor (now living in Yorkshire Wildlife Park), grew into a healthy young bear, and went to live in HWP next to Mercedes, as we said, in 2010. Walker's mother Huggies had been rescued at the age of five months off the coast of Siberia, and brought to safety in Ouwehands Zoo courtesy of the diaper company.  Walker's father Victor came from the Churchill-Vienna dynasty of Rostock Germany.


Walker's mother Huggies in Ouwenhands
Arktos, living with his twin brother Nanuq in Hannover, Germany, were born a year before Walker, in 2007. Mother Olinka's father was Omaha, son of Olaf and Olga of the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Father Eric's mother was Aika of Tierpark Berlin. Arktos has inherited his Grandmother Aika's large round ears.

Aika, grandmother of Arktos.
She also had beautiful big round ears, like Arktos has.

When Victoria arrived, it was Arktos who spent spring months with her, since she is Walker's aunt, and Arktos is unrelated to Victoria. 

 
Arktos, in front, and Walker have enjoyed a wade in the muddy pool.
 How to tell Arktos from Walker? A keeper tells me that, in addition to the difference in ears, Walker has smaller eyes, and wrinkles up his nose more. 

Arktos and Walker spend their days together, sometimes swimming in their large pond, wading in the mud, foraging for the treats (often thrown into the pond for enrichment), and snuggling up for a nap. Where you see one, the other is never far away. Although polar bears are said to be solitary animals in the wild, it is beautiful to see such a friendship in the Highlands.
Arktos, left, and Walker on the rock.
 
Walker and Arktos
 
Good bye and see you next time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Hamish is a wee bonny lad


Mother Victoria and her son Hamish

Young Hamish, just five months old and the first polar bear cub to be born in the U.K. in 25 years, is quite the sensation at the Highland Wildlife Park.

Hamish concentrates on a piece of something interesting

The young cub is starting to be a little more independent of his mom Victoria.

Hamish loves the water,
 and spends much time splashing about

Their enclosure in the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland is huge and rambling, and Victoria now allows Hamish to play on his own, sometimes at quite a distance. She does keep an eye on him, however, and he runs to her to reconnect regularly.


Hamish in the wilderness
 Born in mid-December 2017 , Hamish is about five months old. His mother Victoria arrived from Aalborg Zoo in 2015, and his father 10 year old Arktos had come several years earlier, and spends most of his time with his good buddy Walker.

Highland Wildlife Park is a 260 acre safari park located within the Cairngorms National Park. It was opened in 1972 mostly with animals native to the Highlands. It now features species from tundra and mountainous habitats around the world, suited to the climate and terrain of the Scottish Highlands. Here the animals have spacious natural habitats in which to roam and play.

Walker, left and Arktos, right, with their muddy boots
Arktos was born in Vienna in 2007. His twin brother Nanuq lives in Hannover. Since his father is the late Eric, Arktos is the half brother of Felix, who is the father of Victoria's first cub Milak. The mother of Arktos, Olinka, is the daughter of American born Omaha, so Hamish is the great great grandson of Olaf and Olga of the Henry Doorly Zoo, and is related to many of our American zoo polar bears.


Hamish and Victoria in their large pool

Hamish run to the fence

Hamish often follows his mother around, but is becoming more independent
 21year old Victoria is an experienced mother, having already had a daughter in Aalborg. Nine year old Milak is now in St. Felicien in Canada. Victoria is one of the six offspring of Vienna and Churchill in Rostock, all with names beginning with V. Her brother Victor lives in another UK facility, Yorkshire Wildlife Park.


Hamish gives his mom a hug

The enclosures at the HWP are spacious and wild, with the park devoting 10 acres to the two polar bear homes. The space for the males is quite far from Victoria's custom built area, so there isn't the distraction for the males during breeding season, and Victoria feels quite comfortable and safe with her little son.

Hamish half in and half out of the water
 The environmental impact is kept to a minimum. The enclosures at the park are pretty much the natural terrain, with various pools dug out, but most of the landscape is unaltered, except for the necessary fences. There is no electricity or plumbing in the park, except at the gift shop and cafe area near the entrance, which has nice restrooms and comfortable buildings for guests, but throughout the park, there are just blue porta-potties along the trails.


Snack time comes often for Hamish.
 He still plays with his food as a toy, rather than eating it.
 Victoria has a large natural area, with a holding pen at the top and a mother-cub den in the back, made of very thick wood to insulate during birthing season.

Victoria is a proud mother
 Nine years ago, when Victoria gave birth to Milak in Aalborg, she did so in a constructed den with a webcam installed, so we could all watch her mother her newborn cub and enjoy seeing her grow up. Although she was left undisturbed by the keepers, she could hear noises from outside. Victoria was very used to people and seemed not to mind a bit.

The holding pen at the top of the hill
 In Aalborg Zoo in Denmark, Victoria raised Milak in a well designed concrete enclosure, with a large pool and varied terrain, modeled after the landscape of Greenland, with only windows separating her from her many visitors. Victoria seemed to enjoy interacting with the visitors and even their dogs. Her favorite spot was in right front of the top window so she could watch all the people come and go. 


Victoria in Aalborg with daughter Milak
Her new accommodations in Scotland are very different, wild and remote. As she was when she lived in Aalborg, she is very eager to interact with her keepers, so her connection to people is still there. I have to wonder if she misses being so close to the adoring crowds.

Victoria in Scotland
In Scotland, she was very much alone for the months leading up to the birth, and after. When Victoria gave birth to Hamish in Scotland, she had already knocked out the battery operated camera, so there was only audio for the keepers to tell she had a cub. They aren't even sure of the actual birthday. She remained in the den for months, totally undisturbed, far away from civilization.

In the pool
  Even now, when she roams her habitat, she is quite far removed from the visitors. A good zoom lens is needed to get good photos and videos. 

Shake, shake, shake

As with all babies, Hamish uses his mouth to explore and interact

Kisses for mom, or bites?
   Victoria and Hamish are always excited when one of the keepers comes around. They run up to the holding pen if a keeper is up there doing something. The bears know that often there are treats and snacks and other enrichment prepared by the keepers, which are distributed from different locations and at different times, to keep them off their guard. I think Victoria seeks out the company of her people.

An egg cardboard is smeared with strawberry jam to make a delicious toy

A few weeks ago, Hamish loved to climb inside the black tubes.
Now he is too big.

Hamish has found new ways to play with the black tube.

He will tip the tube and toss it into the water
 When food is thrown in, Hamish runs around sniffing each new tidbit. He can eat solid food, but he would rather play with it. One special snack was rats dipped in jam. The keepers also give him cardboard boxes and egg crate cardboard, also smeared with strawberry jam, which he loves. The bears also got a frozen ice chunk with things inside.

Hamish loves cardboard boxes.


The Scottish Highlands. This is the view from Victoria's home.
In the early weeks after Hamish made his public appearance, Victoria hovered over him. She wouldn't let him go into the pool until she knew he was ready to swim safely. Once she showed him how to swim, he didn't want to leave, and spent all his time in the pool for the next few weeks.


Victoria floats
 Now she lets him play in the pool by himself, while she amuses herself elsewhere, always with one eye on her cub. He keeps track of her too.


Hamish amuses himself.

Watching the keepers. The bears are always alert.

Highland Wildlife Park is ideally situated to provide the polar bears with a suitable climate, lots of snow and cold and wind in the winter, and cooler breezy summers on the Tundra, very similar to what they would experience in Canada. Here she has grass, moss and heather to roll in, and trees to rub against to scratch. She is one happy bear.


Playing with Mum.
 Even though there are people watching nearby, Hamish is growing up pretty much as a wild cub would, even learning to hunt as he tries to catch the birds that probably mistake him for a little lamb, as there are so many sheep in the Highlands.


Water play is the best.

"Mom, what's in your mouth?"
 One of the staff told me that when they were designing Victoria's habitat, they were giving 60 percent consideration to the bears, and 40 percent concession to the visitors. Thus it isn't a "nose to nose" experience as you have in some zoos. The bears are some distance away and often there are fences in your photos. But the trade off is that you can see the bears in a natural setting, just being bears. Unlike some parks with such a natural setting, Hamish is given plenty of toys, which is great.

In this video, at the end, you can see the size of the habitat.  Click on the link to see:

Hamish and his home

Hamish has found a bit of fish, and plays with it as a toy.

Still playing with the fish.

And now playing with the blue tube.
 Hamish is a very lucky cub to grow up in such a wild place, but well taken care of and safe.

Ready to pounce. Play is practice for the real world.

Nothing is more fun than a box.

Hey, that's my box!


Anything underneath?

Fascinating!

Mother love.

Hamish and the egg crate.

Another fun toy, a part of a tree!