Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A San Diego Friendship

Tatqiq is ready for the training demonstration. She opens her mouth for inspection, presents her paws and ears, all while getting yummy treats.. 


Today is International Polar Bear Day for 2019. I would like to share some of my visit earlier this week to the wonderful San Diego Zoo and the three polar bears who live there.

Chinook, who is dirty from rolling in the mulch, is on the left
and Tatqiq is on the right, much cleaner.

Chinook born in 1995 in Manitoba and orphaned when she was about a year old. She became a garbage bear and could have been shot, but was rescued and brought to San Diego. She is now 23 years old, and has never had cubs.


Chinook and Tatqiq on the land, Kalluk in the water
Big male Kalluk and his twin sister Tatqiq were born in Alaska in 2000. Their mother wore a radio collar as a study bear, and when her signal did not move for a period of time, researchers went looking for her and found the three month old twins alone in the den. The cubs came to the Polar Plunge at the San Diego Zoo  They are now 18 years old. Kalluk is mate to Chinook, and Tatqiq has been her brother's  playmate all his life. When the twins were cubs, a book was written about their rescue, called "A Pair of Polar Bears."

As Kalluk is unrelated to any of the other U.S. zoo bears, I would think he would be considered for a move to another zoo, to be matched up with a bear that might be fertile. Chinook, obviously will not have cubs. Tatqiq, his sister, has been on birth control and as such will never have cubs either.


Chinook on the left, Tatqiq on the right, and a snowy egret in the middle


The ladies' friendship has changed lately. In the past, Chinook was always the dominant bear, and Tatqiq would back off when Chinook was calling the shots. Tatqiq would sometimes be put in a separate area, to keep the peace, especially during mating season when Kalluk would want to spend more time with Chinook.

Chinook, the dirty bear on the left. Tatqiq plays with the gunny sack

She has never been pregnant, but Chinook has always gone through the hormonal cycle at this time of year. Kalluk and Chinook would pair off in January, February and March. This year, however, the hormonal cycle seems to have stopped, and Chinook is not interested in mating. This leaves the big male bear with some frustrations, and he spends a lot of time swimming in the big pool, back and forth in repetitive  laps.


The girls spend their time together, playing and sometimes pretending to fight. Surprising the keepers, Tatqiq is now the alpha bear. Previously, Chinook would get first choice of foods and activities, but now Tatqiq is the boss. 

Tatqiq is now the boss
A year ago during the noon keeper talker session, in the photo below, Chinook wandered over to the grid for her snacks and demonstration, and Tatqiq stayed away.

A year ago, Chinook at the training grid

 This year, it was Tatqiq who came over for the special treat. Chinook was still nearby, but she waited for permission from her friend. 

Tatqiq licking at the training grid. 

Chinook hangs back, wanting to come up to the training grid,
but wary of boss Tatqiq

Tatqiq gets a spoonful. Chinook wants some.


The girls half heartedly tussle over the treats

Chinook and Tatqiq are perfectly matched, for they both weigh about 600 pounds. Kalluk weighs about 1100 pounds. The San Diego climate is mild, so the zoo tailors the polar bear diet to keep them at a certain weight. They don't need the extra layer of fat that northern zoo bears might need. The get polar bear chow, canned dog and cat food, lots of fruits and vegetables, and especially lots of carrots.  Sometimes the mid-day snack is given in the form of fruit thrown into the lagoon for diving.

Chinook waits patiently behind Tatqiq, tongue out...

Chinook eases up closer
For the first time since the change in their friendship, on the day I visited, Tatqiq allowed Chinook to come up next to her at the end and have a few spoonfuls of baby food meat. Chinook was reticent, always checking to make sure Tatqiq would not object. The keepers were amazed that both were at the grid together.

Chinook's head gets closer to the grid, in the back

At last, Chinook gets a nibble

Tatqiq, in front, has had enough

Tatqiq then walked away, leaving Chinook to clean up the scraps.

Chinook is still checking, to make sure she is not displeasing her friend

The keepers said the girls get along very well, and speculated that if Kalluk were to leave to breed in another zoo, the girls wouldn't mind at all, and Kalluk, who had always been bonded to his sister, at this point might even welcome the change.
Chinook cleans up the fallen scraps

It has been interesting to see how the family dynamics have shifted over the years. For all their lives, Chinook would have been first at the grid, but now she is the subservient bear. 

Tatqiq walks away, leaving the rest to Chinook. The keepers try to make sure all three bears get their share of treats. You can see old deer antlers on the ground. When the antlers are fresh and smell like deer, the bears are more interested in gnawing. 
Polar Plunge at the San Diego Zoo has always been a paradise for polar bears. About two years ago, the keepers improved the enrichment routine, and now offer four enrichment opportunities each day for the bears, a variety of activities, toys, treats and puzzles to help them keep their minds busy. The keepers plan out these activities long in advance, and there isn't much repetition. 

The keepers wonder if the change in routine, meant to curb stereotypical pacing and swimming, might have brought about the change in dynamics. 

The new ice makers, hanging over the play area for the past year, have been a game changer, providing piles of ice and snow in which to hide treats and toys, and the bears enjoy rolling around in the ice.  Both ice-makers, sadly, are currently broken but are awaiting repair.  Hopefully, they will be back in service soon.

The keepers have added more soft material like mulch for rolling in, and more grassy area. There are large shades overhead too.

Tatqiq with the gunny sack

On the day of my visit, the bears were given gunny sacks with various treats inside. Something to play with, and a puzzle to get to the treats.

At the end of the day, Kalluk is till in the pool

Since the change in routine, the girls rarely engage in any stereotypical behavior, but Kalluk still becomes obsessed with swimming during mating season, as seen in this last photo, taken at the end of the day. He had been swimming all afternoon. This repetitive behavior only happens for a couple of weeks, and then all will be back to normal at Polar Plunge.


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