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  Eisb√§rBlond with link below: 
Manuela's blog - click on this link

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