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.


  1. Dear Molly,

    Thank you for this fantastic article illustrated with great photos and videos!

    I hope the wound in Boris' paw will heal soon. I wish this lovely bear all the best!

    Hugs from Mervi

  2. Dear Molly
    How nice, that you´ve made the long trip
    to Washington, to meet his majesty Boris.

  3. Molly. You really have done us a great service with this report about Boris. As you know, I worked for a while in East Berlin so the fate of the bears from the East German Circus hit me very hard. Boris reminds me so much of the character Colonel Stok in the movie with Michael Caine, Funeral in Berlin. The actor Oscar Homolka who played him could have voiced Boris's story.