Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rizzo moves to Salt Lake City!

I had heard that Rizzo would be leaving the Cincinnati Zoo in early May, so I planned a visit to say goodbye to this beautiful lady in late April. Plans had changed, however, and when I arrived, there were only two bears in the Lords of the Arctic habitat, Little One and Berit. Rizzo had left for her new home at Rocky Shores in the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City in mid-April.

After talking to several members of the zoo staff, I learned that Rizzo had been taken off exhibit several days before her departure so she could fast, which would make the trip easier. She was still accessible to her friends Little One and Berit, who strolled back to see her often during this period, probably wondering why their friend was being kept separate. An elephant keeper told us that Rizzo was flown to Salt Lake City, and the zoo usually uses DHL. He said the Cincinnati Zoo always sends a keeper along when an animal is transferred, and they stay for a short period of time to help the animal adjust. Typically, no sedatives are given for the flight, according to the elephant-keeper.

Hogle Zoo's new Rocky Shores, scheduled to open June 1, is an $18 million complex covering 4 acres. It will have space for polar bears, grizzly bears, seals, sea lions, otters and bald eagles. Rizzo should enjoy living in this state-of-the-art habitat, with large swimming areas and a natural environment. People in that region of the country will again have the chance to meet a real polar bear, face to face, and watch her swim in the underwater viewing area. And hopefully she won't be alone for long.

Rizzo and Little One, a few months ago
A zoo staffer said that there was a lot of mating going on between Rizzo and Little One before she left, so maybe she will have a cub this fall. Little One has always been amorous toward Rizzo, but he regards Berit as just a pal. With Rizzo out of the picture, and Berit being the only lady bear available, the Cincinnati Zoo hopes that Little One will now see Berit in a more romantic light. However, on the day I visited, Little One pretty much ignored Berit except for a brief tussle over food. Both bears seemed to miss Rizzo. Berit, who always liked to cuddle up with her friend, spent a lot of time swimming her laps, as usual, and then took a nap in the nook always favored by Rizzo.

Is Berit pining for her friend?

Rizzo and her little Tyre
14 year old Rizzo came to the Cincinnati Zoo when she was only 10 months old, back in the fall of 1998. She has grown up to be a very gentle and sweet-natured bear.

Little One

22 year old Little One came from the Cleveland Zoo five years ago. Rizzo and Little One have been active with each other every spring, but no cubs so far. The Hogle Zoo hopes to eventually find a new mate for Rizzo and hopefully produce cubs.


13 year old Berit has been at the Cincinnati Zoo since 2000, so Rizzo and Berit have been together for 12 years, a long time to form a friendship between these two ladies, who practically grew up together.

Rizzo is beloved by her Cincinnati Zoo human family, many of whom have watched her grow up. She has been popular with the guests and this extraordinarily photogenic lady has always loved to pose for pictures. It is as if she knows just how beautiful she is. Rizzo will make many new friends at the Hogle Zoo.

Rizzo and Little One

Berit and Rizzo nap together

Rizzo daintily chews on a twig
Berit swims as Rizzo supervises
Rizzo the Polar Bear Lady

Rizzo admiring her own lovely reflection
Rizzo relaxes in her favorite nook

Rizzo looks for feeding time...

Rizzo the Supermodel, always posing for the photographer

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Playtime for Qannik

My early April visit to the Louisville Zoo brought me face-to-face with 15 month old Qannik. No longer the fluffy little baby bear I met last fall, Qannik is still just as cute as can be, but weighing over 250 pounds. Her life in the Louisville Zoo is helping her to grow up to be a happy and healthy polar bear. She was rescued in Alaska last year, starving, motherless, and weighing only 15 pounds. After spending several months being pampered at the Alaska Zoo, she flew to Louisville to begin her new life.

The Louisville Zoo believes in making life interesting for its bears. Polar Bears and Grizzly Bears in the wild live in an ever-changing world, and this zoo is shaking things up to make life fun and unpredictable in a number of ways.

For one thing, the bears are rotated in and out of the two exhibit areas several times a day, spending some time in their bedrooms, and some time in the big pool area, and some time in the “loading dock” area. Glacier Run is designed to look like an abandoned mining town, with the interesting features often doing double duty as bear enrichment and exercise equipment.

And the staff always considers what is best for the bears, not necessarily what is best for the public. When Qannik, and then later Siku, first arrived, it was slow going, allowing each bear to adjust to the new environment. When it was time for Qannik to make her debut, she had the run of the glassed-in room, but it was covered with papers so she could get used to the new material. The posters were slowly removed over a period of weeks so she could slowly adjust easily to having her fans invited into her life. The same process has applied to Siku. He is now occasionally in the glassed in room, and will soon be in the big swim area. At this zoo, the big question is “What is best for the bears?”

Qannik spends 80 percent of her time in the pool when she is in the larger enclosure. She uses her natural hunting instincts to stalk her buckets and balls, and jump on her pretend ice floe.

When she is in the loading dock “playroom” area she often plays in the pools full of water or ice. When it snowed over the winter, staffers filled up her pool with ice and packed snow on top of it. She loved that.

Sometimes the keepers feed her meat snacks on a stick through the fencing in the upstairs crossover of Bear Alley. While she was enjoying her tidbits, the crowd below was enthralled by her guttural response. The noises she makes are startlingly monstrous, kind of a low and loud growl. It's hard to believe that such scary noises are coming from such a cute little snowball of a bear.

Qannik used to take a break at lunchtime for a nap, but her keepers say that she now pretty much keeps going all day, with only a few brief moments to rest. 

The keepers watcher her constantly, with a clipboard in hand, documenting her activities and how much time she spends doing whatever she is doing, and where. They also test “poop” samples every day for stress hormones, to make sure the bears are happy.

Qannik responds whenever she hears the voice of one of her keepers, thinking that they might have something for her. But she pretty much is oblivious to her fans. She does whatever she feels like doing, ignoring all her visitors.

 When she is in the big pool area, she dives and swims and plays with her toys, taking a break every once in a while to run over to the door that she knows Arki is behind to scratch at it. She loves to run up and down the ramp, too.

When she is in the loading dock area, she runs up and down those stairs, and checks out the overhead crossing. She jumps up into the back of the “truck” to check for hidden treats. There was a little bird in the hay and she tried to catch it. The keepers say that although she does try to catch the occasional bird, she never really succeeds. The door to her downstairs bedroom is open so she has the choice to rest down there. Louisville Zoo Director John T. Walczak explained to me that when the doors are closed, the doors become a focal point of interest and stress. When the bears have a choice because the doors are open, they are less stressed. It is all about giving the bears a choice. He is also a great proponent of the rotating schedule, which gives the bears variety and the unpredictability they would have in the wild.

 I suspect the keepers lose sleep thinking of new ways to surprise the bears. They hide food in tied up jute sacks. Snacks are hidden in plastic pails with lids. Treats are lurking under piles of hay, but the bears can find them with their strong sense of smell. 

 Sometimes treats are hidden in doggie Kongs. I saw that Qannik's environment was changed up several times in an afternoon. Barricades were put up to challenge her. Snacks were hidden. New ice tubs were put out. Toys were switched out. There was always something new for this busy little girl.


 Behind the scenes, Siku was getting the same treatment in his luxury condo with a swimming pool. Grandma Arki and the Grizzly Bear family also have lots to do to exercise their minds and strengthen their bodies. There is never a dull moment for the bears at the Louisville Zoo.


Because Qannik is being raised in this exciting environment from a very young age, the hope is that she will not develop the stereotypical pacing behavior often seen in older zoo bears such as Arki. Even 27 year old Arki is benefiting from the new activities and rotating schedule at the Louisville Zoo, although she will always do her habitual little “dance.” More on Arki later.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Splashing with Qannik

She just never stops moving. Little 15 month old Qannik, now at 253 pounds, is a little dynamo at Glacier Run at the Louisville Zoo. And when she is in the big habitat, she spends 80 percent of her time in the pool. The keepers keep track of her activity, moment to moment, and by far and away, she likes to spend her time swimming and diving.

Of course she has a grand time wherever she is. When she is in the smaller habitat, she never stops having fun. She runs up and down the stairs, and finds new and exciting ways to play with all her toys. The keepers are always hiding surprises for her too, as enrichment. And she likes playing in tubs of water and ice in the smaller habitat as well. But give her the big pool, and she is an Olympic swimmer and diver.

Here she is swimming with her favorite green horse ball that she got for her first birthday in January.

Buckets make great swim toys, even if they are a little bit used. She looks a little like an Angel here.

 She looks smaller in the water, but when she gets out, you can see how much she has grown. When Qannik was found abandoned in an oilfield in Alaska last spring, she only weighed 15 pounds. After being rescued, she lived at the Alaska Zoo for several months where she put on some pounds and made many friends, and then found a new home in Glacier Run at the Louisville Zoo in late June.

A view of Qannik's "water park"

An ice floe that never melts.

All this activity burns up a lot of calories! Qannik gets three main meals a day, consisting of meat, fish and polar bear biscuits, and bowls of polar bear milk formula. She also spends her time discovering treats hidden around her enclosure, in buckets, in jute bags, buried in hay and in other secret spots. She loves solving puzzles when it means she gets another snack. The keepers are always thinking up new ways to surprise this little girl bear.

Even in the smaller area, Qannik is never far from a tub of water or ice. Here she is with one of her many adoring fans.

That's Qannik, the pool girl at play.

Because the Louisville Zoo has three polar bears that have to be 
kept separate for now, and a family group of three grizzly bears, 
the zoo has an ever-changing rotation schedule, so Qannik 
moves around during the day. This variety of environments also 
is good for the bears, so they always have something new to do.

I will write more later about Siku and his grandmother Arki, and also about how the zoo staff keeps the environment exciting for all the bears. Also, more pictures of Qannik.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vilma – Motherhood at last.

Vilma of  Zoo Wuppertal in Germany

Although this blog is mainly about polar bears in zoos in the USA, I will occasionally include some international polar bear stories.

In the past four years, there has only been one polar bear cub born in a United States Zoo. That is Siku, born two years ago to Crystal and Marty at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. Last year, little wild Qannik, an abandoned cub, was rescued in Alaska. Both cubs are now living at the Louisville Zoo.

There is also a new cub in the Toronto Zoo this year, cute little Hudson. The St. Felicien Twins a couple of years ago in Quebec also stirred the hearts of polar bear lovers.

But we do have polar bear cub news out of Europe. Here we go on a detour to Germany, to celebrate the news from Zoo Wuppertal in Germany about the debut of little 3 month old cub Anori, daughter of Vilma and Lars.

With the birth of her daughter on January 4, 2012, ten year old Vilma finally gets a chance at happiness. Anori was born and took her first steps in the special mother-and-cub habitat at Zoo Wupperal. The world has really taken notice of this little lady. Her first pictures and videos are everywhere. Anori is remarkable not only for her cuteness, but also because she is the half-sister of the late Knut of the Berlin Zoo, who died just about a year ago at age 4. Knut was the world's most famous polar bear.

Here is a link to Anori's debut on March 29. Mom Vilma is very protective of her little daughter.

Last Spring

These following pictures are from last spring, when I visited Vilma and Lars at Zoo Wuppertal on a rainy day in May, shortly after the end of polar bear mating season. On the day I visited, the two bears were getting along, but not interacting very much. However, I have heard that a month earlier it was a different story, and the two bears couldn't get enough of each other. 

Vilma and Lars

On the day I visited in May of 2011, Vilma and Lars were roaming around the main polar bear enclosure, which is not cub-friendly with all its steps and drop-offs, but provides an interesting habitat for the adult bears. The mother-cub area is smaller, and cub safe. The adult bears were given access to this area as well, but on the day I visited, they were in the main habitat. Vilma spent some time pacing, with her signature sudden twirling of her head as she turned, over and over. But she did spend some time swimming, and running up and down the stairs. Lars mostly concentrated on a snack.
Lars has a snack

Vilma looked thin last spring, which I think may have been the result of Lars' relentless amorous attentions during mating season. But she looked happy. Lots of smiles. Her coat had dirty spots, but after she went swimming, the dirt was gone.

Vilma's story

Vilma was born to Vienna and Churchill in Rostock Zoo in Germany in the spring of 2002. When she was two years old, she moved to Tiergarten Nuremburg where she lived happily with another lady bear Vera, and young handsome Felix.

Then came the unpleasantness after Vilma and Vera both gave birth in late 2007 to cubs. No one knows what really happened, and Vilma was a young, not quite 6 years old, a first-time mother. Some say that reporters and photographers disturbed the new mothers, making too much noise outside the den. Some suspect that Vilma's two cubs may have been sick or even died. There were no cameras installed in the den. All we know is she gave birth to two cubs, and seemed to be taking good care of them, but in early January of 2008, Vilma's cubs were just gone one day, and the assumption was that she ate them, something that happens when a cub dies, or is sick. Anyway, there was a public outcry against the zoo and against Vilma, who was just doing what her polar bear instincts dictated. None of what happened was in any way her fault. But she was vilified by the public, and according to newspaper accounts, Vilma was called horrible names by the visitors.

Also in early January, Vera started acting strangely with her surviving cub, taking her outside and dropping her. The zoo rapidly reversed its policy on non-interference, and decided to take the cub and hand-raise “Flocke,” who quickly became a worldwide media sensation and gave quite a boost to zoo attendance.

A few months after Vera and Vilma had their cubs, Felix moved to the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark in the spring of 2008, where he took up with resident ladies Malik and Vilma's older sister Victoria, with both of whom he eventually had cubs.

When celebrity cub Flocke was old enough to need a home of her own at Tiergarten Nuremburg, Vilma was moved back to Rostock, and at Rostock, the only male bear around was her father, the mean Churchill. So Vilma didn't have a chance to have more cubs. I had always hoped that young Vilma would find a home where she would have a chance at proving that she could be a good mother. At Rostock, Vilma shared a home with her mother Vienna, and just waited.


Lars, born in December of 1993, was Knut's father in the Berlin Zoo. He had moved to Zoo Wuppertal in October of 2009, where he was introduced to a lovely 20 year old lady name Jerka. They got along beautifully and playfully, and everyone had high hopes for the pairing. But tragedy was to come. In June of 2010, both Jerka and Lars became terribly ill with a sudden mysterious illness that damaged their kidneys. Sadly, Jerka did not recover, and Lars was on the brink of death, but finally did recover. And although Lars would not know it, his celebrity son Knut died at the Berlin Zoo suddenly in March of 2011.

In the fall of 2010, Vilma moved to Zoo Wuppertal, where Lars was living.

Vilma paced, and as she turned, she twirled her head



Vilma considers going swimming

Vilma wears a dirty patch on her fur


 After an active Spring together, and a companionable summer, Vilma was shut up in the birthing den at the zoo in the late fall, where she gave birth to two cubs. This time there was a den cam, and the world was treated to a few photos of Vilma cuddling her little baby, named Anori, which means “The Wind.” One of the cubs had died at the age of one week, and Vilma buried that cub. But Anori was strong. This time Vilma is getting to raise her baby.

So for now, Vilma is a busy new mom, tending to her cub and enjoying having the visitors tell her what a wonderful mother she is. Vilma, you are a very good mother.