Sunday, December 31, 2017

A fond farewell to our favorite Australian

As 2017 draws to a close, the end of the year has brought us news of another loss. Aussie, father and grandfather of so many American cubs, has died at his home at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, just two days before Christmas.

Aussie with Anana, a few years ago
 At the age of 32 and a half, he was the oldest male polar bear in a North American zoo. He suffered from the ailments of old age, arthritis and other degenerative diseases that required treatment with painkillers. His health had deteriorated to the point that his caretakers thought it was best to euthanize him, to end his suffering.

Aussie relaxes in the grassy meadow of Great Bear Wilderness
 He was quite a character, sometimes gentle, but sometimes bossy. He and his mate Arki got along well enough to produce a good number of cubs over the years. He was beloved by his many visitors, who came to know him well over the years.

Aussie stands lookout
 Aussie was born on June 20, 1985, in Adelaide, Australia, and thus celebrated a rare summer birthday. His original name was BIAZ, for Born in Adelaide Zoo, but when he arrived at Brookfield at about the age of a 18 months, he quickly was nicknamed Aussie, because of his birthplace. And that became his name.

 At the end of 1986, Aussie joined young polar bear Arki, only six months younger than Aussie, at Brookfield Zoo. Arki had been born at the zoo, and her mother Trisha had died only a few months before Aussie's arrival. 1986 had been a tragic year, with the loss of three female polar bears, including Tricia and her daughter Penny, from unrelated causes.

Brookfield Zoo wanted to rebuild its breeding program, and Aussie would play his part.

Aussie loved his naps

Over the years, Aussie and Arki became parents to Marty in 1996, Tiguak in 1999, Kinepak in 2000, Payton in 2003, and Hudson in 2006. Today, Marty lives in Toledo, Payton lives in Memphis and Hudson still lives at Brookfield. Tiguak and Kinepak grew up, but died in other zoos, sadly.

I visited Aussie several times, and the photos above are mine. However, my dear friend Kim Pruim is a devoted and frequent visitor of Brookfield, and kindly provided the photos below, taken over the years.

Aussie in the old Bear Grotto at Brookfield - photo by Kim Pruim

The outmoded bear grottoes at Brookfield were closed and the polar bears moved to the spacious and lush Great Bear Wilderness in 2010, where the bears enjoyed open spaces, grassy meadows, pools, waterfalls, and privacy if they so desired.

Aussie - photo by Kim Pruim

Arki retired from motherhood and moved to the Louisville Zoo in 2011, and that left just Aussie and Hudson. Then Female Anana joined them for a time, while her habitat in Buffalo was being rebuilt.  Aussie and Anana had a complicated relationship, not always seeing eye to eye. 

Aussie at his 30th birthday party - photo by Kim Pruim

Of their cubs, only Marty has produced offspring, but he has been prolific, making Aussie a grandfather to Aurora and Anana, Nikita, Siku, Suka and Sakari, and Hope. Aurora has produced three cubs in the Columbus Zoo: Nora, Nuniq and Neva, and Anana has produced one cub, Amelia Gray.

Thoughtful Aussie - photo by Kim Pruim

While it is wonderful that Aussie is responsible for so many cubs, one has to wonder where the mates will be for these bears, since most of the cubs under the age of 10 in this country come from Aussie and Arki. Only Luna and the two Alaskan cubs, Qannik and Kali, are not related to each other.

Enrichment - photo by Kim Pruim

Recently Nan, who is mother to one of Marty's cubs, came to Brookfield as a mate for Hudson. Aussie and Nan got along fairly well.

Aussie chases Nan, just this past May - Photo by Kim Pruim

My friend Kim has known Aussie since she was a baby. She visited Aussie often, and in the past few years, each time wondered if it would be the last time she would see him. She and another friend visited Aussie the day before he left us, not realizing the end was so near.

Aussie sneers - photo by Kim Pruim

Kim writes, "Aussie has been a part of my life since 1996, when I was a year old. When I met his last offspring Hudson for the first time in 2008, that's when I really began to appreciate Aussie (as well as other polar bears) more. Through the years, I have made many visits to the Brookfield Zoo to visit Aussie and to photograph him.

"A highlight for me was the one and only time I got to see him behind the scenes, back in 2012. I shared a brief one-on-one moment with him. I quietly called his name as I knelt down next to the mesh, and we looked into each others eyes. That was a sweet moment I'll never forget.

"With no knowledge of his arthritis worsening, I managed to see him the day before he was euthanized. Though it made his passing harder for me, I feel very lucky that is was among the last of his visitors. He was my favorite old man and Brookfield Zoo will not the same without him."

Aussie daydreams - photo by Kim Pruim

Aussie reflection
- Kim's last photo the day before he died
Photo by Kim Pruim

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