Sunday, August 19, 2018

A love story on the French Riviera

Raspi and Flocke 
They are an unlikely couple. Flocke is reserved, thoughtful, quite ladylike, and a little aloof. Raspi is rough and tumble, impulsive and often silly. He is utterly devoted to his Flocke.

Flocke rests on top of the arch rock,
 to get a little break from Raspi (below) chasing her

But fate brought Flocke and Rasputin together, and they are now quite the happy couple, living the good life on the French Riviera. Here is their story.

Baby Flocke, in a photo taken by Ralf Schedlbauer
 Nuremburg Tiergarten, where she was born.
Flocke was born in Nuremburg, Germany, on December 11, 2007. The tiny cub was carelessly dropped by her panicky and too-young mother Vera, and reared by keepers at Nuremburg Tiergarten.  I remember seeing the video of Vera dropping her little cub on television broadcasts here in the U.S.A. It was international news!

Mom Vera had just turned five when she gave birth to Flocke, which may have been the youngest mother on record. That at invasive paparazzi at the polar bear area made Vera panic.

Flocke learning to walk. Photo by Ralf Schedlbauer
 at Nuremburg Tiergarten. Flocke was kept in an open black box,
 to be more like a real bear den. 
Flocke became a media darling, known around the world, with fans awaiting the latest cute photo, amusing video, interview (in German) with the keepers, or breaking news on her changing situation. I was one of those fans, checking every day for Flocke updates, endlessly discussing with other Flocke fans around the world through emails the news and photos and checking the newest BR-online internet posts about our baby. I had to start learning German to keep up.

Petra, one of the four zookeepers who raised the little princess,
plays with Flocke. Photo by Ralf Schedlbauer
 Flocke was doted upon by her four loving human parents, showered with cuddly toys and baby blankets, and the subject of baths, brushing, massages and professional photo shoots.

Flocke at about one year of age, playing with a jute bag.
Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

Flocke grew up under the media spotlight, having been born a year after the famous Berlin polar bear cub Knut, who was now well past his babyhood. Knut was still beloved, but he had outgrown his cute baby looks. Flocke the Ice Princess became the new polar bear cub sensation. 

Young Flocke. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
One of Flocke's regular visitors at Nuremburg Tiergarten was my dear friend Manuela Ruthenberg, who has given me permission to use some of her early photos of the pair in this story. 

Young Flocke takes a nap. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
As Flocke grew older and bigger, her keepers had to distance themselves, and the young cub had to entertain herself, since she didn't have a playmate. 

Flocke playing in the snow. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
 She needed a friend her own age to play with.
Young Flocke. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

It was thought that a companion of the same age would help her in her development, so a young male bear was brought from Moscow when Flocke was a year old. 
Young Rasputin. Photo by Manuela Ruthenburg

Raspi was born in the Moscow Zoo about the same time as Flocke's birth, and raised by his mother, along with his twin. At the time, Rasputin and his brother didn't even have names, only numbers until polar bear #2892 was selected to come to Nuremburg, Germany for an extended stopover on his way to Spain. 
Young Rasputin. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
We still don't know his brother's name, only his number: polar bear #2893, and that this twin brother now lives in a zoo in China. Another Moscow bear cub of that year,  born to a different mother Simona, just a few days after the twins were born to Murma, was a girl with the number #2894, and she was later named Gerda by her new zoo.

Soon after Raspi's arrival, Flocke and Raspi at play. Young Raspi liked to attack the trees, and the keepers had to put up guards to protect the trees from Lumberjack Raspi. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

A fun winter in Nuremburg. Raspi with the bucket,
 and Flocke looks on. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
Polar bear # 2892, then nameless, lived an obscure life up until the day he left Moscow. When he came into the Famous Flocke's life, Polar bear #2892, now named Rasputin, had to learn about living in the media spotlight. There were many polar bear fans who visited frequently, and they took many photos and wrote endless stories about the two cubs.

Rasputin and Flocke in the snow. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

Rasputin and Flocke were fond playmates. A companion was just what Flocke needed, and Rasputin was happy to be with his new friend.
 Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

Rasputin, who had grown up in a polar bear family with a brother, was teaching Flocke to be a polar bear. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
Flocke's new playmate was given the temporary name Rasputin, named for the Russian mad monk.

Young Rasputin. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
This young male bear was promised to a zoo in Spain, to live in a habitat yet to be built, but that move never happened because of the worldwide economic downturn. He remained Rasputin, soon shortened to Raspi by his fans. To this day, there are still no polar bears in Spain.
Raspi and Flocke at play. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

Raspi has always been a swimmer. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
It was a perfect match. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
 The day of their introduction was well planned. The cubs had slowly been introduced to each other at a distance, and were allowed to sniff at each other through bars for many weeks. Everything went well. Then finally, Flocke and Raspi met face to face. The zoo had fire hoses ready in case the cubs needed to be separated, but no need. Right from the start, they adored each other.  

Flocke tells Raspi what to do. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

For Raspi, it was love at first sight. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg

Raspi leads the way. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
The two young bears played well together, but Raspi was more active. Flocke, even then, wanted alone time. Although she was smaller, as their relationship developed, it was clear that Flocke was in charge. The friendship continued with the two bears learning from each other every day as they grew up.

Best friends. Photo by Manuela Ruthenberg
When Raspi and Flocke were a little over two years old, it was time for them to find a new home. Because the bears were so firmly bonded, they had to go together. The pair was invited to move to a brand new polar bear habitat in Marineland water park in Antibes, France, built right at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  There would be three spacious state of the art, multi-level enclosures, with waterfalls, grass, brooks, trees, diving pools, and ice caves, with nice sea breezes coming from the south, and mountains to the north. 

At Marineland, two spacious enclosures to the left, and the mother cub enclosure below.

Marineland had built two large ice grottoes,
with a continuous supply of ice and snow for the bears.
Their neighbors would include orcas, penguins, dolphins, sharks and sea lions.

Flocke could see the Orcas from her window.
There was some concern from fans about polar bears living in the climate of the Riviera. But the sunny summer of the Riviera is mitigated by cool sea breezes. 

Marineland has lovely deep pools for the bears
If the bears wish to retreat to cool conditions, they have the chilly pools, the air conditioned bedrooms, and the ice grottoes.

Flocke and her daughter Hope play in the ice grotto
When it was time to move, Raspi had no doubts, as long as Flocke was going along with him. 

With Raspi and Flocke moving south, Flocke's father Felix could return to Nuremburg from Denmark to be with Vera again. During the next few years, Vera gave birth to twin boys, Gregor and Aleut, and was a fine mother to them. More recently, she gave birth to daughter Charlotte, and again, was a very good mom. She had just been too young and nervous with Flocke.

Vera, Flocke's mother, still lives in Nuremburg, 
with Flocke's little sister Charlotte.
When the cubs moved to France, Rasputin's name was given a French twist, and he has become Raspoutine. His keepers call him Raspi, with the accent on the second syllable. But Flocke, which means (snow)flake in German, has stayed the same. When Hope came along in November of 2014, the zoo decided to give her an English name, truly an international family.

Flocke with little Hope
Raspi's relationship with Flocke has been rocky at times. He has always liked to chase her, to tease her, to swim with her. Flocke likes Raspi pretty well most of the time, but enough is enough and then she wants to be alone. However, Raspi always wants to be with Flocke. 

Flocke and Raspi together
The staff at Marineland know their bears so well. When Flocke is in a solitary mood, they separate the two. Raspi, next door, sniffs at the air holes connecting the enclosures, and peeks through, looking for his Flocke. He goes inside looking for her. He cannot understand why they cannot always be together. After a short absence, Flocke is happy to see Raspi again, and they play and romp.
Raspi wants to see his Flocke, on the other side
Little Hope was born when Flocke was seven years old, and some wondered if the young mother would take care of the cub, as she had been raised by humans, but no need to worry. Flocke had perfect mothering instincts, and as Hope grew, Flocke knew just how much freedom to give her cub, to help her develop her independence. 

Flocke with her tiny daughter Hope, in the spring of 2015
Flocke and Hope lived in the lower enclosure, so Raspi could not see them most of the time. But he could smell Flocke, and he missed her terribly in those three years they were separated, especially during breeding season. When Hope was older, she and her mother were often in one of the upper enclosures, so Hope could learn to swim in the deep pool. Raspi peeked through and sniffed at the communication holes between the two swimming areas. He was curious about Hope, and she was interested in that big bear next door.

Raspi swimming
Raspi's keepers gave him lots of enrichment to distract him, and he swam a lot, his way of working off his frustrations. Raspi especially enjoyed it when his keepers gave him branches that Flocke had peed upon, and the scent of her urine seemed to calm him, strangely enough. The lovesick bear felt close to Flocke then, maybe. 

Raspi sniffing around.
At times, Raspi could visit his daughter Hope and they would get acquainted through bars.

Raspi "talks" to Hope through the grate last year
This past spring's breeding season, the two bears were together again, after three year old Hope moved to Orsa Bear Park in Sweden. It was an intense couple of months, with Raspi wanting constant contact with his beloved Flocke.

Raspi chases his Flocke up and down the hill, inside and out again.
When I visited in early May, Raspi was still in the throes of spring hormones. He could think of nothing but Flocke. When they were together, Raspi chased Flocke. She would find higher ground to defend her privacy, and he would sit below her, just adoring her, and begging her to let him near.  You see, her spring hormone surge had tapered off.

Flocke would find higher ground, and tell Raspi to keep his distance
I think she rather likes his devotion, and she would tease him and test him. Flocke definitely calls the shots in this relationship.

Raspi watches Flocke with devotion
Sometimes Flocke would relent and they would play together.

Raspi and Flocke frolic in a big pool
 Sometimes she would growl and warn him off. When she had had enough of Raspi pestering her, the keepers would separate them for part of the day, to give her a break.

Raspi is guarding Flocke, hoping she will come down to play
It was this amorous behavior that prompted some animal rights activist, looking for trouble, to post a video with the odd conclusion that Raspi was suffering from the "hot" weather of the Riviera, for the bears always have access to the air conditioned bedrooms, chilled pools, and the ice caves, and even so, often prefer to nap in the sun. 

Male bears get excited during breeding season.
Raspi gets so excited chasing Flocke that sometimes he froths a bit at the mouth. This was also misinterpreted by the "expert," as a sign of being overheated, while the fact is, Raspi was merely lovesick during this hormonal time of the year. Now that breeding season is over, things have returned to normal. 

Flocke and Raspi - Yin and Yang
But wait, maybe Flocke has a surprise for us this fall. With all the amorous activity this past spring, maybe there will be a little cub or two making an appearance at Marineland.

And then Raspi will be on his own again for a while.

Sometimes, love is hard. But Raspi will always love his Flocke.

Raspi chases Flocke. Come and play, with me!
Many thanks to Manuela Ruthenberg for sharing her photos of Raspi and Flocke in the early days for this story. You can see more of her photos and videos of Vera and Charlotte on her blog  EisbärBlond with link below: 
Manuela's blog - click on this link

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What it is really like for the Marineland polar bears

Flocke on top, gives Raspi a little kiss, or is it a bite?
Do you want to know what life is really like for Flocke and Raspi (AKA Rasputin, Raspoutine), who live in a state-of-the- art polar bear habitat on the French Riviera? 

Mother Flocke, and Baby Hope, in 2015 spring

I have visited Flocke and Raspi and their daughter Hope at Marineland in Antibes, France, four times, and for many days each time,  over the past few years. I have talked to their keepers. I have observed them. This bear family is indeed fortunate to live in a comfortable, well managed environment where their needs are always taken care of by staff who love them. Flocke and Raspi were well loved in Nuremburg before they came to Marineland, and their former zoo caretakers visit them in their new home as often as they can. Flocke especially gets very excited when her "parents" come to visit, as they raised her with a bottle from a very young age.

During breeding season, Raspi chases Flocke. It is what boy bears do.
Recently a crazy petition has been going around claiming that the polar bears at Marineland are suffering, and the petition falsely describes harsh conditions, and demands that these bear be moved. This petition is based upon a video shot in June by some anti-zoo visitor, who obviously had no idea what he was looking at. If Raspi  seems agitated in the video, it is because he is "lovesick," as male polar bears tend to be during breeding season.  

Raspi guards Flocke, who takes a position on high ground
and warns him to keep his distance if she is not in the mood
Since Marineland is built right on the Mediterranean Sea, the climate is quite temperate. The average high in August is 81 degrees F, quite in line with the average high of many zoo locations. It is the same as Chicago, where there are two zoos with polar bears.  The average August high in Cincinnati, which has two polar bears, is 85 degrees F. The two polar bears in Kansas City exist quite nicely with a 90 degree F average August temperature, thanks to ice treats, chilly pools and air conditioning. I visited KC in August last year, and polar bear Berlin was quite active and happy. This summer, all of Europe was very hot, probably warmer than in Antibes, which has the nearby sea to moderate temperatures. Even Sweden, where Hope now lives, was hot this summer. 

Raspi is quite the avid swimmer.
The sea breezes keep it comfortable at Marineland, and polar bears adjust quite well to living in moderate summer conditions, as long as they have air conditioning inside, and cool pools in which to swim. Polar bears in warmer climes are given less fat in their diet, so they don't have the insulating blubber of a wild bear, and their fur may not be as thick.  

Flocke and Hope in the mother-child enclosure below,
 when Hope small, before she moved to Sweden.  
The three enclosures at Marineland are well designed, spacious and with varied terrain, including large grassy areas.

Flocke plays Queen of the Mountain on one of the stone arches
There are stone arches to provide climbing opportunities and shade, and overhead shade awnings have been installed in several areas. Even though there is shade, the bears tend to ignore it, often choosing to nap in the sun. In addition, water mist sprayers have been installed in the mother-cub area to spray water intermittently. 

Years ago, Baby Hope takes a nap with her mom Flocke
While the utility doors shown in the offending video are closed, the main doors which the bears use to go in and out are always open, so the bears always have access to the air conditioned bedrooms inside, if they wish. If a bear is outside, it means they want to be outside.  The doors are only closed when the bears are inside, as in when the keepers are cleaning the area.

Behind Raspi, a closed utility door, falsely cited in the offending video.
 Behind Flocke, to the right, the doors are open. 

Raspi guards Flocke, who is in the interior hallway.
 So the petition's claim that the bears are locked out in the heat is totally false. Raspi often chases Flocke in and out of those hallways and doors, because he is so anxious to be with her.

Raspi chasing Flocke yet again.
When the video was made in June, shortly after my visit in May, Raspi was indeed frothing at the mouth but not because he was too warm. He had been pursuing his lovely Flocke, passionately chasing her around because his hormones were telling him that it was still breeding season. Male bears in the throes of a heightened sex drive may foam a little at the mouth, have reduced appetite, and be very single minded about what they want.

The two bears were separated for three years, when Flocke was raising their cub, Hope. Now that they are together again, Raspi is making up for lost time. The keepers do separate the two bears at times, so Flocke can have some alone time. Some separation makes for a better relationship between the two bears when they come together again. 

Flocke naps in the ice grotto
Marineland has made every effort to keep the bears comfortable. Here on the French Riviera, the bears have access to two large ice caverns, the likes of which I have not seen at any other zoos. Ice makers provide a constant  chilly snow and ice environment which simulates winter. 

Hope in the ice cavern, with Flocke behind.
 Keepers often hide special snacks in the snow, so the bears can forage for their dinner. While Flocke and Hope seemed to enjoy their ice cave, and often took naps there, Raspi is a less frequent visitor to his winter grotto, although it is available to him whenever he wants it.

Flocke chills out.

Flocke and Hope in the ice cave


Raspi at the door of his ice cavern
Of course a great way to cool off is to go for a swim. Marineland has deep diving pools filled with chilled water in the two upper enclosures, and a shallow baby pool with a feeder stream in the mother-child enclosure below. Raspi is a big fan of swimming, and does lots of laps every day.

Baby Hope with her mom in the baby pool

Raspi swims

Flocke and Hope swim together in the old days,
 before Hope grew up and moved to a new home in Sweden.
I am sure very few of the petition signers ever visited Marineland, and had no idea what they were signing. Please, don't sign petitions unless you have first hand knowledge of the situation.

Here is a short video of Raspi chasing Flocke, and they end up swimming happily together. The video was taken in May this year.

Video: Raspi chases Flocke, catches her!

Flocke and Hope clown around in the ice cavern

I will tell the story of Flocke and Raspi (and little Hope), and how they came to live in Marineland, in my next post, with many photos of their early years together, thanks to a dear friend in Nuremburg.

Happy Raspi