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?


Mother love.

Hamish and the egg crate.

Another fun toy, a part of a tree!