Saturday, August 28, 2021

Astra's family


Ice Princess Astra

Since my visit earlier this month, I hear that Mother Suka and cub Astra are now spending time in the Pack Ice section with the big pool at the Arctic Ring of Life in the Detroit Zoo!

Last year, the only cub born in all of the USA was Kulu, in the Columbus Zoo, born to Suka's sister Aurora and father Lee. 

Kulu has some new first cousins. This year the only zoo with cubs is the Detroit Zoo, with twin girls  Astra and Laerke born to Aurora's younger sister Suka and father Nuka. I just had to make the trip up to Detroit, even if I could only see half of the cub pair.

Astra at the edge of the small pool. Mum is in the water.

When Astra and Laerke, being raised separately, were very young, the smaller freshwater pool in the Tundra area was drawn down to a very low level for safety as they first learned to swim. 

A Detroit Zoo photo of Laerke, taken in February.

When Laerke was old enough to explore the outdoors, she always had a guardian when out in the enclosure, and always after the zoo had closed. Now that the cub is over 100 pounds, she is unaccompanied in the Tundra area but her caretaker watches closely from the perimeter, always in secret. Laerke is the mystery sister

More about the cub I could see! When I visited in on August 11, Suka and her daughter Astra were still spending their days in the meadows of the grassy Tundra, which has a small freshwater pool,  which was nice and full, and Astra was very comfortable with the water. A week after my visit, Astra was deemed strong enough to be introduced to the big pool.

So mother and child now have access to the Pack Ice half of the Arctic Ring of Life, which features a 170,000 gallon saltwater pool, and a 70 foot long viewing tunnel under the water, so visitors can experience having the polar bears swim right over them.

An overhead view of the Arctic Ring of Life.
 The Tundra area with the small freshwater pool is to the left,
 and the Pack Ice area, with the big saltwater pool is to the right.

Suka has always loved the big pool. I visited a few years ago, and found her playing with a ball. At that time, the zoo had seals, and an invisible barrier separated the polar bears and the seals, predator and prey. Now there are sea otters in the separated section for young Astra to pretend to hunt.

Suka in 2019, playing ball

Suka in 2019, enjoying the big pool

Suka in 2019. She will have to teach her daughter these tricks now.

Suka in the Pack Ice area in 2019.

It will probably be some time before Laerke will be allowed in the big saltwater pool. Laerke is said to be very healthy, but is only half the size of her sister, and she would not have the safety of her mother nearby in the water. In the meantime, she plays on the tundra after the visitors have all left, as her caretaker watches from nearby.

Suka had lost two sets of twins, two years in a row. When she gave birth to twins on November 17, 2020, her keepers kept close watch with the dencam and when one twin seemed to be faltering just a few days after birth, they made the decision to separate her from her mother and raise her by hand.

Laerke has done well, but she hasn't grown as fast as her sister. But she is said to be healthy and developing well.

On that hot summer day of my visit, Astra was still happily splashing in the smaller pool of the Tundra with her mother. 

Astra and her mother Suka

Side by side, Astra, said to be 200 pounds,
 is still much smaller than her mom.

Swimming in the baby pool.

Astra thinks she is big enough for the grown up pool.

A dip in the pool on a hot August afternoon.

Astra shows that she is a good swimmer.

Father Nuka was close by, just across the divide in the Pack Ice section. He stayed where he could see Suka and Astra, sometimes growling, sometimes just watching. The keepers said they could tell where Astra might be by just finding Nuka, because he wants to be near his little family.

Nuka in his own part of the Arctic Ring of Life, the Pack Ice.

Nuka, who has always been known as a gentle bear, was at the center of some controversy last spring, when beloved female polar bear was found dead on the Pack Ice section, and it was first thought that Nuka had killed her during a breeding attempt. Nuka has been cleared in Anana's death. An autopsy showed that she had died of heart failure, and the marks on her neck and head were from Nuka moving her around, trying to "wake her up." It was a tragic incident, to lose Anana like that, but Nuka was totally innocent.

Nuka strolls, with an audience of Suka and Astra

Synchronized Shaking - Mother and Daughter

Astra shakes it off while Papa Nuka stays near, but not too near.

Astra and her parents.

Astra and Suka spend their summer days running through the meadow.

Time to rest. Suka gives some love
to her nursing daughter.

Family ties

The father of the twins is 17 year old Nuka, a bear who is related only to twin brother Koda of Memphis, older sister Cranbearry in Alaska, and his Aunt Snowflake of Pittsburgh, none of whom has produced a cub. So Nuka's genes are quite rare and valuable.

As cubs in Toledo, twins Sakari and Suka. Sakari was a lot bigger than his sister here. Sakari is now in Buffalo.

Suka, on the other hand, is related to many of the polar bears in US zoos, and even a few in Europe. Her parents Marty and Crystal of the Toledo Zoo are parents of twins Aurora and Anana of Columbus, Siku of Lincoln Park, Suka's twin brother Sakari of Buffalo, Hope of Brookfield Zoo, and Bo of Henry Vilas. 

Here's Crystal in 2013, nursing Sakari (left) and Suka.

Suka's sister Aurora is mother of Nora of the Oregon Zoo, twins Nunik of the Kansas City Zoo and Neva of the Maryland Zoo, and young Kulu, still in Columbus. Sister Anana is mother of Amelia Grey, living in the Maryland Zoo with sister/cousin Neva.

The day after I visited the Detroit Zoo, I stopped by the Toledo Zoo to see Marty, here keeping cool on a hot day by lazing in the pool.
Crystal was inside that day, enjoying the air conditioning.

Suka's father Marty is the son of the late Aussie and Arki of Brookfield Zoo, and brother of Payton of the North Carolina Zoo and Hudson, still in Brookfield. Only Marty has sired cubs.

In Skandinavisk Dyrepark in Denmark,
 Astra's cousins Siku, Nuno and Nanu.

Astra and Laerke have some European cousins too. Suka's mother Crystal was born in Belgium, and still has a sister Blanche living there in Monde Sauvage. Blanche is the mother of Qannik, still living with her mother, and Nanok of Skandinavisk Dyrepark in Kolind Denmark, who is the father of Danish Siku (also raised by hand) and Nuno, still in Kolind, and Nuno's twin brother Nanu in France.

Astra winks and says, Bye for now! Come back again!


  1. Dear Molly! I must lift my hat for you for remembering all the family ties. I always loose the count .... :-) Thank you so much for this very informative and entertaining article!
    Hugs from Mervi

  2. Дорогая Молли!! Спасибо за интересный рассказ и фотографии.

  3. Molly What a wonderful story of two cubs. What a difference Polar Bear milk and love makes