Monday, February 26, 2018

Only 45 polar bears left in U.S. zoos

33 year old Snow Lily of the Milwaukee County Zoo is the
oldest polar bear in the country, after the recent death
 of her 37 year old sister Coldilocks in Philadelphia.

It is February 27, International Polar Bear Day. People often ask me how many polar bears there are in United States Zoos.  The answer is alarming. Below is a survey the state of the polar bear population in zoos in the USA. 

At one time there were hundreds of polar bears in American zoos, but the housing arrangements were were rocky bear pits, nothing to brag about. We have come a long way in providing large and interesting natural habitats for our bears, however, the zoo population has slowly dropped, and now we are down to only 45 individuals in United States zoos. 

If you live near a zoo that has polar bears, you are very lucky, for they are becoming more and more rare.


Last year on International Polar Bear Day, there were 54 polar bears in U.S. Zoos. We lost so many this past year. A total of 9 deaths in the past 12 months in US zoos brings us to just 45. That is a shocking loss of a sixth of our polar bear population in just 12 months.

Rizzo, of the Cincinnati Zoo and Hogle Zoo

Rizzo, female age 19, died at Hogle Zoo on April 9, 2017.

Uulu, female 36 years old, died at the San Francisco Zoo on April 13, 2017. No polar bears at the San Francisco Zoo now.

Szenja, the German bear in San Diego SeaWorld
Szenja, female 21 years old, died April 18, at San Diego SeaWorld. There are no polar bears there currently, although Snowflake is said to be only on loan to Pittsburgh.

Nanuq of the Columbus Zoo
Nanuq, male, 29 years old, died April 26, 2017 at the Columbus Zoo. He was father to the three young cubs just born months before.

Kobe, female age 16, died October 20, 2017,  at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. She had just moved there from Pittsburgh. 
The late Aussie of the Brookfield Zoo
Aussie, male age 32, died  December 22, 2017, at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. 

Tundra, male age 26, died December 23, 2017 at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. With his death, it is the end of polar bears at the Bronx Zoo. 

Ahpun, female age 20, died January 3, 2018, at the Alaska Zoo Jan 3, 2018.

Coldilocks, female age 37, died February 20, 2018 at the Philadelphia Zoo. She was the last polar bear at that zoo. 


And as for births in American Zoos to make up for the losses, no cubs were born in any U.S. Zoo in 2017. Hopefully, this fall will bring some good news from at least one of our zoos.

In 2016 the Columbus Zoo welcomed three newborn cubs, Amelia Gray, Nuniq and Neva, at the Columbus Zoo. 

The year before, Toledo and the Columbus Zoo each had one cub, Hope and Nora, now together in the Hogle Zoo. 

Nuniq and Neva of the Columbus Zoo
Why are there so few cubs being born? In the early 2000s, the polar bear zoo population seemed to be stable. In addition, zoo standards were rising rapidly, and acceptable polar bear enclosures were very expensive to build. Some zoos decided to stop keeping polar bears.

Zoos with fertile female polar bears did not want to produce more cubs than there were zoos to send them to.  Many of the female bears of a certain generation, of breeding age in the early 2000s, were given what was thought to be temporary birth control, but it rendered them sterile. It was only for a few years, but the effects were permanent.  

In addition, some male bears were deemed non-essential to the breeding program as their genes were well represented, and thus they were neutered, decisions that are probably regretted now.

Polar bear fertility is tricky. It seems that polar bear girls should start having cubs when they are fairly young if they are going to have cubs at all. Delaying pregnancy for a few years, whether through chemical birth control or the absence of a male or just bad luck, can mean the female will never get pregnant. Thus, the polar bear mothers who have cubs, even if they miscarry or the cubs are stillborn, will most likely keep getting pregnant. The females who don't get pregnant by the age of 10 or 11 may never get pregnant.
Crystal has given us six cubs. Here are Suka and Sakari as litte ones.
 This drastically narrows the gene pool for the cubs are all coming from just a few mothers and fathers, or in the case of our zoos here, from Marty and Crystal. Almost all of our young bears are related to Marty and Crystal of the Toledo Zoo.

Bringing in polar bear cubs rescued in Alaska or Canada, or bears born in Russia and Europe used to be no problem. In fact Crystal, our wonder polar bear mother, was born in Belgium. But laws passed a few years ago make it illegal to import polar bears from other countries. 

Wildborn Qannik as a cub in Louisville
We can still bring in rescued polar bears from the state of Alaska, but there is some law saying that these bears remain property of Fish and Wildlife Service, and cannot be part of the breeding program, so Kali and Qannik cannot be contribute to our dwindling gene pool. Until these laws are changed, our bear population will continue to decline, and we will not have polar bears to breed unless they are related to each other, and eventually, none at all. That time is not that far away unless laws are changed.

Wildborn rescued cub Kali in his early days at the Buffalo Zoo
Even when polar bear cubs are born, they are so fragile that half of them don't survive. This tragic statistic  is  true in zoos and in the wild.

CREW at the Cincinnati Zoo has been researching polar bear reproduction, and has attempted artificial insemination several times. Berit was the study subject for hormonal injections. There is also a repository of polar bear sperm at CREW, for future use if there were to be is a breakthrough in AI. However, polar bear reproduction is very complicated.  The experts are making progress, though.

Western U.S. 

We will start on the West Coast. There are six zoos with a total of 12 polar bears west of the Rockies.  None of these bears have ever reproduced.

Tatqiq, Chinook and Kalluk of the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo has three wildborn bears. Female Chinook at 22, Male Kolluk at 17 and his twin sister Tatqiq at 17. Tatqiq has been on birth control most of her life. The twins were bonded to each other, and the decision to keep her with Kalluk was made so he would have his playful companion with him, in addition to his mate Chinook. No cubs have been born in that zoo for decades. Chinook had been on birth control at one time and is considered to be infertile.

SeaWorld San Diego housed polar bears until this past year, but no more. In February, Snowflake moved to Pittsburgh, and they lost beautiful German born Szenja in April of this year.

With the death of Tasul in November of 2016, and Nora's departure for Salt Lake City, the Oregon Zoo has no bears, currently, but they are  renovating their polar bear enclosure.

Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma Washington is home to two male bears, wildborn Blizzard who is 23 years old, and Boris, the last of the rescued Mexican circus bears from the Suarez Brothers Circus. Boris was born in Rostock, Germany, the son of Churchill, and is 33 years old, the oldest male bear in this country.  He suffered in that circus for 15 years, but has had an enjoyable old age at the Tacoma Zoo.

The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage is home to just one polar bear now, Lyutyik, who is 17 years old, and was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. His mate, wildborn Ahpun, only 18, died unexpectedly on January 2, 2018. The Alaska Zoo has also been a temporary refuge and first home to polar bear cubs Qannik and Kali at different times. Qannik now lives in the Louisville Zoo and Kali now lives in the St. Louis Zoo, after spending his babyhood in Buffalo with another cub, Luna.

21 year old twins Kiska and Koluk, both males, live at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They were born in Salt Lake City, and their parents were Chinook and Andy. They have never been part of the breeding plan.

In the Denver Zoo, you will find 16 year old Cranbeary, who was born there. She lived for a time in Memphis. Also in Denver is 18 year old Lee, born in Rochester, son of Aurora and Yukon. No cubs have been born in the Denver Zoo since 2004. 

Nora of the Hogle Zoo

Hope of the Hogle Zoo

Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City is home two little girl cubs, Nora from Columbus and her Aunt Hope from Toledo. The cubs both just turned two years old. Nora was raised by her keepers and thus attained some fame. Nora lived in the Oregon Zoo for a time, but they are renovating their polar bear enclosure so Nora was moved to Hogle Zoo, where the new polar bear enclosure was empty after the beautiful Rizzo died.

Central U.S.

Most of the zoos with polar bears are in the central part of the country. with 25 bears

Erie Zoo in  Pennsylvania was home to Patches, but their facility was outdated and they closed it when she moved to the North Carolina Zoo, where she later died.

Bam Bam of the Henry Doorly Zoo

Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, where Olaf and Olga had many cubs in the 80's, one of whom went to Europe and started a long line over there. 30 year old Bam Bam, whose given name is Fanny, is the last surviving member of the Olaf and Olga family. The last cubs born in this zoo were Bam Bam and  her late twin sister Patches in 1987. Bam Bam never left, and never had a cubs. 

Neil and Buzz of the Como Zoo
Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota - 22 year old brothers Neil and Buzz were born in Louisville in 1995. To keep them together, they were neutered, so they are not part of the breeding plan. In the past few years, Como Zoo has hosted Berlin when her enclosure at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth was flooded and she escaped. Berlin survived her adventure, and eventually went on to live in Kansas City. The Lake Superior Zoo no longer keeps polar bears.

Berlin of the Kansas City Zoo

Kansas City Zoo - 28 year old Berlin, born in Cincinnati, in 1989 along with her late twin brother Yukon, lived in the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth Minnesota most of her life, then for a short time with her uncles Neil and Buzz in Como Zoo. She moved to Kansas City to be with young bear Nikita, but he is now in North Carolina so Berlin is all alone, happily. She had a mate called Bubba in Duluth, but he has been gone for years and never had cubs, but her brother Yukon fathered Lee, Anoki and Hayley in Rochester with Bubba's sister Aurora.

Wildborn Kali lives in a state of the art exhibit in St. Louis.
 He has his own ice machine.

Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri - Alaskan born Kali's mother was shot by a hunter, but he was rescued and, after time in the Alaska Zoo and the Buffalo Zoo, he now lives in a brand now state of the art exhibit in St. Louis, by himself. There is some law that allows zoos to host bears that belong to Fish and Wildlife, but not to breed them, so Kali is not part of the breeding program until that law can be changed.

Suka and Berit
Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, has a brand new expansive grassy enclosure with a big pool, a paradise for 19 year old Berit and 5 year old Suka. Berit,granddaughter of Olaf and Olga, born in Denver, has never had a cub, even after living for over a decade with Little One in Cincinnati. She had been on the birth control pills. Suka, one of Marty and Crystal's cubs, will be moving to another zoo to be with a male bear very shortly, although it has not been announced. Suka's twin brother Sakari lives a Henry Vilas for a time, and now lives in the Buffalo Zoo.

Milwaukee County Zoo, Wisconsin - 33 year old Snow Lily just became the oldest bear in the USA, when her sister Coldilocks died at age 37 in  Baltimore. Snow Lily is the only polar bear in Milwaukee now, but it was also home to the famous Wilhelm, or Willie, the retired circus bear.
Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, has seen a lot of polar bear cub births, thanks to Arki and Aussie, who are no longer with us. Aussie, born in Australia, just died recently, but his 11 year old son Hudson is still there, joined by wildborn 23 year old Nanuyaak, or Nan, who gave birth to Nikita in 2006 in the Toledo Zoo, fathered by Hudson's brother Marty. She is a proven breeder, giving us hope for more cubs in Brookfield.

Siku, now in Lincoln Park, during a training session at Louisville Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, just built a fine new polar bear enclosure, and Siku, son of Marty and Crystal, lives there alone. He had a female companion named Kobe for the summer, but she died unexpectedly in the fall, shocking everyone. 

Marty, father of seven cubs
Toledo Zoo, Ohio is the most successful breeding zoo for polar bears in recent history. Toledo is home to Aussie and Arki's son  Marty, age 21, and 19 year old Crystal who was born in Belgium. This happy pair is parents to twins Aurora and Anana in Columbus, Siku in Chicago, Suka in Henry Vilas Zoo, Sakari in Buffalo, and Hope in Salt Lake City. They are also grandparents of Nora in Salt Lake City and the three cubs in Columbus now. Marty is also the father of Nikita in the North Carolina Zoo.

One of the three cubs at the Columbus Zoo,
in their fantastic underwater viewing area
Aurora and her two cubs

Columbus Zoo in Ohio is home to five polar bears: twin sisters Aurora and Anana, 11 years old, and their three cubs, Amelia Gray, Nuniq and Neva, all age 1, fathered by the late Nanuq. Aurora's daughter Nora is 2 years old and lives in Salt Lake City.

Little One and Anana
Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio is home to 28 year old Little One, born in the Cleveland Zoo., and 17 year old Anana, who is a proven mother, having given birth to Luna, although she didn't raise her, but left it to the keepers. Little One and Anana have not gotten along for the past year, but recently discovered that they are madly in love, and thus, there may be a good chance for cubs this fall.

Talini "hunts" seals in the Arctic Ring of Life at the Detroit Zoo

Detroit Zoo is the largest polar bear enclosure, with the additional attraction of the underwater viewing tunnel. Talini is the daughter of retired rescued circus bear Barle, who died a few years ago, and Triton, who also passed away. She lives with Nuka.

Qannik at her birthday party at the Louisville Zoo

Louisville Zoo is home to wildborn Qannik, who is now 7 years old. As property of the Fish and Wildlife Service, she is not part of the breeding program

Payton is one of the Brookfield cubs
Memphis Zoo has two residents: 15 year old Hayley from the Seneca Park Zoo and 14 year old Payton, who is the son of Aussie and Arki of the Brookfield Zoo.

Eastern USA

There are 8 polar bears in the eastern part of the country.

There are no polar bears in New England, and with the death of Tundra, no polar bears in New York City.  The National Zoo in Washington DC has not had polar bears in a long time.  SeaWorld in Florida was home to Johnny and twins Klondike and Snow, but they are all gone now.  Coldilocks,  the only bear left in the Philadelphia Zoo, died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 37, the oldest polar bear in the country  at the time of her death.  

Snowflake of the Pittsburg Zoo

The Pittsburgh Zoo, in Pennsylvania, is home to  22 year old Snowflake and her nephew 13 year old Koda. Snowflake lived for many years in SeaWorld San Diego, and made several breeding visits to Pittsburgh, but no cubs resulted. She may remain in Pittsburgh.

Sakari and Luna in their big new pool
Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York, has a young exciting couple. Luna and Sakari are just five years old, and get along very well. We may see cubs in Buffalo before too long. Luna is the daughter of the late Nanuq (father of the Columbus cubs) and Anana of the Cincinnati Zoo. Sakari is the son of Marty and Crystal of Toledo.

Aurora of the Seneca Park Zoo

The Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester New York has seen its share of cubs at one time. Aurora, now 28 and the late Yukon were parents to Anoki (now in Baltimore) in 1996, Lee (Denver) and Anana (North Carolina) in 1999, and Hayley  (Memphis) in 2002. Now Aurora lives alone, a quiet life. After Yukon died, she had another companion, the playful Zero, for some years, but there were no cubs.

Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, MD is home to 21 year old Anoki. She was born in the Seneca Park Zoo to parents Aurora and the late Yukon, and lives alone in Baltimore since the death of her companion Magnet in 2015. They had no cubs. She lived in Albuquerque for ten years, and has lived in Baltimore Maryland since 2008.

North Carolina Zoo  has a new polar bear area with lots of grassy space, and is home to 11 year old Nikita and 18 year old Anana. There have been no cubs so far, but keepers are hopeful this pair will figure it out.

Hope for the future?

Here is a link to a map put together by some folks in Oregon to include all polar bears in North America, current in November of 2017, so it doesn't include some recent deaths.
Link to Map of North American Polar Bears in Zoos

This story does not attempt to address the great perils of the changing climate for the wild bears. It seems that  alarms are going off for the wild population and the zoo population of polar bears as well. We all share one planet.

The number of zoo bears is going in the wrong direction. Something has to be done about the laws preventing the moving around of polar bears. 

Hopefully by this time next year, we will have some births to talk about, and the polar bears we have will still be with us. If those ridiculous law can be changed, we can send some of our polar bears to Europe or Japan or Canada or Russia, and bring some new bear friends over here. Let's hope so.