Sunday, November 18, 2018

My Quest to meet Boris- Part 2


I had come over halfway across the country, to the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma Washington, with a very special goal, to see Boris, who at nearly 33 years of age, is the oldest male polar bear in the U.S.

Boris, the oldest male polar bear in the U.S. zoos

On my first day visiting the zoo, I got to talk with Sheridan, the polar bear keeper at Point Defiance, took a look at where Boris lives, and found out who his neighbors are. I spent some time with the arctic foxes, the Musk Oxen, companion polar bear Blizzard, who is 10 years younger than Boris, the puffins and the walruses. But the old guy I had come so far to see had spent his day inside, playing with his toys in the indoor pool and sleeping. Boris, in his elderly state, is not allowed out on Thursdays, it seems, since that is the day they drain, clean and refill the pool.

Churchill of Rostock, father of Boris

Boris is the firstborn son of the late Churchill in Rostock, Germany. Boris came into the world on December 15, 1985 under the stork's nest of the old Castle at the Rostock Zoo. Boris' mother was Kara, Churchill's half sister. Kara was also sister of Lisa, mother of Lars and Knut's grandmother. The father of all three, Churchill, Kara and Lisa, was Olaf Wildfang. Zoos were not very strict about the studbook in those days, as evidenced by the family tree of Lars as well.

The late Tosca, one of the other German circus bears,
 became mother of Knut
In those days, in Europe and in the U.S., polar bear births in zoos were more common, and with more cubs, there wasn't always a zoo that could take the cubs when it was time to leave their mothers. Those were different times. Sadly, 18 month old Boris was sold into the East German circus system, and spent many years traveling and performing with Wilhelm, Tosca, Kenneth and other polar bears under the training of a tiny German woman known as the Polar Bear Princess, Ursula Böttcher. Ursula loved her bears and treated them humanely, but the traveling circus life was never easy for the bears.

After German Reunification, without the state subsidies for the East German circuses, everything changed. By the late 1990s, the performers had retired or gone elsewhere, and the circus assets were sold off. Tosca went to the Berlin Zoo, where she lived with Boris' cousin Lars and became mother of the famous Knut. A male polar bear named Tromsö, now 29, still lives in the Amnéville Zoo in France. But at the time, in the late 1990s, with a bigger zoo polar bear population than now, zoos wanted bears that could breed and provide cute little cubs. The male circus bears had been castrated so they would not fight with the other bears, so zoos were not anxious to take them.

Sadly, the bears who were not taken in by European zoos were sold to the Suarez Brothers Circus in Mexico, where the conditions were hot and terrible. The bears were poorly fed on dog food, white bread and lettuce, and they had cramped quarters and no pools, no way to cool off. Wilhelm took a swipe at a trainer, and in response, he was declawed.

Polar bear keeper Sheridan with some lettuce for Boris at Point Defiance Zoo.

A Canadian couple visiting Mexico saw the circus, and filmed the pathetic bears performing. They brought attention to the plight of the polar bears in the Mexican circus and the suffering animals were were rescued in late 2002 in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by U.S. Officials. One of the six bears died during transport. The other bears were in pretty bad shape, including Kenny and Boris, who were flown to the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. There the two bears were given extensive dental treatment and medical care, good nutrition, and lots of love.

Boris watches Sheridan go, hoping for more lettuce

It is now 2018, and all the others have died, Kenny in 2012, but Boris carries on. I decided I needed to visit him before it was too late.

Boris steps down from the rock perch, to head for the water bowl

So on my second day in the Seattle area, I arose in the dark, again rode buses for hours, and climbed through the fog up the hill once again to the zoo entrance. First stop was to try to see Boris. Sheridan, the polar bear keeper I had talked to the day before, had informed Boris that he would have a special visitor and he was to be on his best behavior. As I came into the viewing building, I could see that Boris was there, atop the left rock platform, munching away on lettuce being thrown to him by Sheridan from the other side of the fence. At this time of year, he gets six pounds of food a day, to maintain his weight at 911 pounds. His favorite food is lettuce, maybe because of his familiar diet during his Mexican circus days. Less weight means less strain on his old arthritic bones. By the way, Boris does NOT like melon.

Boris had some abscesses on his foot,  which you can see here.
 He walks very slowly and carefully these days.

Boris is craggy and majestic in his old age, just like his father Churchill was, but Boris is a gentle giant, whereas Churchill was banished from the company of other polar bears for his aggression. 

Boris resembles his father Churchill, but with more gentleness

Boris' circus days are long behind him, but he did put on a “show” just for me. It was more like a royal audience.

Boris slowly makes his way

He climbed down from his rock, slowly and gingerly lumbered toward me so I could get a good look. Boris is not fond of the uneven river-stone rocks in the enclosure, but that was the material used at the time of construction in 1982. I wished he could have some grass to roll upon.

Boris walks carefully on the riverstone floor
Boris has recently had root canals for his poor old teeth. Last spring he underwent experimental and revolutionary stem cell treatment for his arthritis. This had never been done before with polar bears, and seemed to give him some relief. The experiment was repeated this summer, but the results the second time were disappointing, but he is getting medication for his arthritis. He is also receiving eye drops several times a day.

Boris weighs in at 911 pounds these days.

On this morning, Boris had several abscesses on his right front paw that had ruptured earlier, so there were streaks of blood on his paw. The vet would be keeping an eye on that.

Boris still likes his toys. I can imagine him balancing balls in his circus days.

Boris paused to play for a few moments with the blue ball.

Click on the link for the Video:

The keepers change out his toys regularly, to keep him interesting in playing.

The old circus bear slowly made his way over to the big yellow bowl of fresh water, and had a few sips.

Fresh water in the bowl. The swimming pool is filled with saltwater.

Boris takes a sip. Note the blood on his paw from the broken abscess.

Chewing lettuce makes Boris foam at the mouth a bit.
And then Blizzard joined the party. The younger bear quickly took control of the blue ball, grabbing it in his moth and running off with it, climbing up to the right side rock resting place. Boris seemed not to mind.

Click on the link for the video of Boris walking, ever so slowly. 

Video: Boris walking and Blizzard with the ball

Blizzard at the right takes control of the ball.
   Boris lingered by the yellow bowl, then strolled carefully over to the left side rock platform, climbing up ever so slowly. You can tell that he's an old bear, just by the way he walks.

Boris has had enough. He makes his way toward the exit.

Boris heads for the hills

He pauses a moment on the rock platform. 

This is  what you see  from one of the two viewing rooms. You can step down into a second viewing chamber which gives visitors an underwater look at the bears playing in the pool, although that did not happen during my visit.
 Boris is on the left, and Blizzard is on the right.
After a few minutes rest atop the flat rock, he decided that the public audience was over, made his way down, and took his exit. I was lucky enough to enjoy about an hour with His Majesty.

Boris makes his exit towards the indoor pool
 and a nice soft pile of hay for his nap.
Younger bear Blizzard continued to hold court atop the right hand rock, but there was to be no swimming that day. In the autumn, bears slow down. They eat less, move less, play less.

Blizzard toys with the blue ball.
Sheridan, the keeper, told me that Boris was free to come and go, but he would probably not come out again for the rest of the day. I did check every few hours, but it was just Blizzard, and he was mostly napping.

Boris on his throne
Although it was only for an hour, I was happy to have seen Boris, at last. Thanks, Boris, for coming out just for me. To me, you are European Royalty.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Blizzard - and My Quest to meet Boris- Part 1


I had been wanting to visit Boris and Blizzard in Tacoma Washington for years. Boris, after all, was one of the rescued Mexican circus bears, one of the “Suarez 6. ” I was fascinated with his story. He was born in 1985 in Germany, worked in the East German circus for years, then was sold to a traveling Mexican circus. He and his fellow polar bears, starving and mistreated, were finally rescued and sent to U.S. Zoos in 2002. Boris is the oldest male polar bear in U.S. zoos, and he has a very special story. He is getting up there in years. I wanted to visit him before it was too late.

I finally scheduled a trip to Seattle Washington to meet Boris at last, in the beauty of the Autumn season, staying at SEAtac airport, to be close to bus and rail lines.

I arose early on that foggy Thursday morning in order to take the first of three buses to get me to Point Defiance Zoo. It took over two hours to get there, and then a long walk up the hill to the zoo entrance.

Point Defiance Zoo sits on a peninsula jutting into the Puget Sound, bordered by a beautiful wooded park. I have learned that in earlier days, the polar bears were situated by the Rose Garden of the park, each with a cage and a pool. In those days, the park covered more ground but had fewer animals. The park today focuses on animals of the Pacific Rim, and wildlife of the Tundra.

A view of Blizzard from one of the two viewing rooms

The current polar bear enclosure may be the oldest in the country, built in 1982 and filled with river-stone, no grass, but a rather nice large salt water pool for the bears. There are two big flat stone resting places in the enclosure, and it is all seen through glass in the two rooms of the sheltered viewing house. You cannot see the bears from any other vantage point.

Blizzard naps
On that Thursday morning, Blizzard was taking a nap on one of the elevated rocks. The pool was empty, but just starting to fill up. The keeper talk is set for 11:30 every morning, and it was there I found out from Sheridan, one of the polar bear keepers, that on Thursdays the pool is drained and cleaned, and they don't let Boris come out when the pool is low for safety issues, because he is so old. 

Blizzard's three pounds of food for the day

I would have to be content with Blizzard for that day. To see Boris, I would have to return on Friday. Another early morning in the fog, another long series of bus rides.

Blizzard catches fish thrown from the roof. He is pretty good at it.

Sheridan told the crowd all about polar bears and Blizzard and Boris in particular. She answered my questions, and then went outside to throw Blizzard some treats. These bears insist that the keepers cut the heads off the fish, Sheridan cuts them in half so the bears think they are getting more. They have trained the bears to sit, like a dog, on a scale and they are weighed weekly.

Blizzard goes for a stroll. His fur is smooth and white
In nature, polar bears tend to eat a lot in the spring and summer, and it tapers off in the fall. The Tacoma Zoo follows this pattern. 22 year old Blizzard weighs 1125 pounds right now, and they want him to lose a little more weight, so he gets only three pounds of food each day currently, plus maybe a bone with shreds of meat and marrow to chew upon. Blizzard's favorite food is melon. He just loves it. He doesn't like lettuce at all.

Blizzard gets bones to chew on,
to make him think he is getting more food than he really is.

Behind the scenes, Boris, who is almost 33 years old, weighs 911 pounds right now. Last spring he underwent experimental stem cell treatments for his arthritis, the first time this has been done for a polar bear. The stem cells are cultured from Boris' blood, and then injected into his bloodstream. The first treatment gave him a lot of relief, but the second time did not help him much. It is better for his joints if he weighs less rather than more. He gets six pounds of food a day currently. His favorite food is lettuce, maybe because that is what he was fed during his time in the Mexican circus. He does not particularly like melon.

Sheridan the keeper strolls around the enclosure,
 on her way to feeding Blizzard, who knows what is coming
Both bears are trained to present parts of their body for medical examination, and their hips and shoulders for injections if needed. The keepers have devised a box in which the bears voluntarily place their heads for eye drops. Boris gets eye drops several times a day. He gets supplements for his arthritis, and also had several abscesses on his right front foot that the keepers were keeping an eye on.

Blizzard is very playful, and has lots of toys, but he has to share them with Boris, who also likes toys

I was assured that Boris has lots of soft straw and hay in the bedroom area, so he can sleep comfortably. On that Thursday morning, I was told that Boris was inside, having a great time playing with his toys in the indoor pool.

Handsome Blizzard
I checked on Blizzard several more times on that Thursday. Blizzard and his twin brother Glacier were rescued as cubs from Churchill in Canada, and after a short stop in Calgary, came to the Point Defiance Zoo in 1987. Glacier died in 2015 at the young age of 19, from liver cancer. Glacier is thought to have been the first polar bear treated with chemotherapy for cancer, which greatly improved his quality of life. Glacier had been diagnosed in February 2015 with liver cancer and a heart murmur. The zoo veterinary staff searched out experimental treatments that might help him. Chemotherapy and heart medications gave him more time and made him feel well enough to eat and play and interact with his keepers again. But sadly he did succumb to the disease eventually in November of that year. These experimental measures may help other zoo bears in the future.


At one point, there were four bears living in that habitat. Another of the “Suarez Six” polar bears was Kenny, who died in 2012 at the age of 27. Kenneth, or Kenny, had been born in the wild in Canada, but ended up in the East German circus system with Boris. They and other bears had been sold to the Suarez Brothers Circus in 1999, and finally rescued by the USDA officials in Puerto Rico in 2002, Shortly after Kenny arrived, he underwent a five hour dental session with human dentists, getting root canals, extractions and fillings. Both circus bears were in terrible shape when they arrived, but got the best of care in Tacoma, and their health rapidly improved.

A smile from Blizzard

When there were four bears in residence, the keepers rotated them, with two outside and two inside. Now just Boris and Blizzard are left. The door is always open to go back inside if a bear wishes to.


I wandered around Rocky Shores to visit the three lady walruses, Basilla, Joan and Kulu. The male on loan from San Diego SeaWorld has just returned to California, leaving behind the possibility of a pregnant walrus. A a new underwater viewing area for the 125,500 gallon pool gives an amazing view of the walrus trio up close in swimming mode. Very few zoos keep walruses, so this was a nice opportunity to study them up close.

The three lady walruses

One of the lady walruses seems to have eye issues?

The zoo also has Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins, two of the three kinds of Puffins, in a natural setting complete with cliffs where the puffins can lay their eggs and raise their babies. I have seldom seen Puffins in a zoo, and never in a natural breeding habitat such as in the Point Defiance Zoo.

Horned Puffin in the front, Tufted Puffins in the back
These two kinds are the Pacific puffins.

Tufted Puffin

Puffin nesting holes in the cliff

The puffin area, shared with the Common Murre.
You can also meet the Sea Lion and the otters, Arctic foxes and Musk Oxen.

Scout the Arctic Fox

Sekiu the otter

The Point Defiance Zoo is active in a breeding program to repopulate the almost extinct Red Wolves in the Northwest and elsewhere in the country. The population had dwindled to just 14 individuals in the 1970s, but has bounced back to 50 wolves in the wild, and about 200 in the captive breeding program. The wolves have been temporarily removed from the zoo to another sanctuary during construction of the nearby picnic shelter, since the wolves are very sensitive to outside noises, so I did not see the wolves. The breeding program has been successful, but now political agendas are getting in the way of repopulating.

Daria the Sumatran Tiger
The Asian area features many kinds of animals who are rotated through the different exhibits every day, and are thus exposed to new and interesting scents. 

Small Clawed Otter plays with pumpkins

Porcupine gets a pumpkin too

White cheeked Gibbons only have eyes for each other

Here you can see porcupines, Sumatran tigers, White cheek gibbons, Simians, a pregnant tapir couple, and many other animals. Nearby is the elephant home with two elderly lady Asian elephants, and the keeper talk is always worth hearing.

Keeper holds Luna, the youngest chick of this flock of Magellanic Penguins.
Most of the keepers at the Point Defiance Zoo are women.

I also stopped by the Magellanic Penguins to meet the new chicks.


The newly opened South Pacific Aquarium is just beautiful. The tanks are so gorgeous you might think they are high definition digital images, but they are real. The jellyfish floating the the giant globe are surreal! The zoo has a second, older aquarium too.

The view from the zoo's central plaza

The Point Defiance Zoo is built around a central plaza which offers a breathtaking view of Mount Rainier.

In order to meet Boris, I would have to visit the next day, hoping he would come out! The Quest continues...

Blizzard waves goodbye