Saturday, December 31, 2022

Toledo Twins!


Crystal and her twins December 9 - dencam photo

Although the polar bear birthing season is not quite over, and rarely is one born in January, as far as I can see, the only cubs born and surviving in a zoo this year are Crystal and Nuka's twins in Toledo. This includes the zoos in Europe, Russia, Japan and the USA, although we get very little news from China.

There were twins born in Japan, but they only lived three days. Triplets born in Estonia did not stay, sadly. These are the only publicly announced births, besides Crystal, but sometimes zoos wait awhile before announcing, so it is possible there are cubs somewhere.

The European zoos have seen a good birthrate for their polar bears in recent years, and are now being careful not to overbreed, and thus have intentionally moved many polar bears to all-boy or all-girl groupings. With the closing of Orsa Bear Park in Sweden in October, homes are still needed for Ewa and her two year old daughter Miki, and Hope and her one year old twins.

Russia seems to be concentrating on using their valuable zoo space for orphaned or injured polar bears, and have announced no births this year. In the past, they have sent polar bear cubs to China, but this is thought to not be a good option. Very little is ever heard about these bears, once they go to China.

Canada also seems to be concentrating on their rescued orphan bears, and saw no births this year.

Japan saw two births two years ago, and another a year ago. 

Zoos in the US would love to see more polar bear births, but the population is shrinking and becoming more closely related. There were no cubs born in a US zoo last year, and only the Detroit cubs the year before. The Alaska Zoo has just announced that they are taking care of a rescued yearling orphan male bear.

Crystal is an experienced mother, having already given us twins Aurora and Anana, Siku, twins Suka and Sakari, Hope, and Bo. Her daughters Aurora, the late Anana and also Suka have all produced cubs.

Crystal nursing Sakari and Suka in 2013

 Nuka is the father of the two year old girls in Detroit, Astra and Laerke.

Nuka with Mother Suka and her daughter Astra in Detroit

The small but mighty Laerke, only 290 pounds.

Polar bear cubs have a high rate of mortality, estimated at 50 percent in the wild and in zoos, for they are quite immature and fragile at birth. I found this chart at Gelsenkirchen ZOOM in Germany, which shows zoo births for polar bear cubs worldwide 2001 through 2016.

 These Toledo twins have made it through the riskiest time, the first two weeks, and have settled into a routine of eating and sleeping and sometimes crawling around.

A dencam photo on Dec 11

I estimate that Crystal's twins were born around the middle of November. They will not be on public display until spring, but meanwhile, everyone is invited to watch the twins grow via webcam: Toledo cub dencam

Twins are quite common in polar bear births, but triplets are rare, occurring maybe once a decade in a zoo. Although polar bear twins are usually about the same size, Crystal's cubs are not. The big chubby one seems to be about three times the size of the small one, but both are active and seem to be doing well. Her last set of twins, Sakari the male and Suka the female, differed in size although not to the same degree as these twins.

Suka and Sakari.

The sad story of Swimmer

There was one other pair of polar bear cubs that were very different in size. Walker and Swimmer were  born in December 2008 in Ouwehands Zoo in the Netherlands to Huggies and Victor. A dencam had been set up to film their birth and early days for Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series, for it would be folly to try to film a wild mother bear. Huggies' rescue as an orphan cub had been sponsored by Kimberly Clark, thus her name, and Walker and Swimmer were named after types of their diapers.

The Ouwehands twins emerged from the den in mid-March 2009, and won the hearts of all.  Less than a week later, Swimmer was dead. His mother had been teaching him to swim, and a later autopsy showed that a blood vessel in his chest had burst from the exertion, and he drowned. It is not known if this condition was related to his small size. Huggies and Walker mourned for lost little Swimmer for a long time, as the public watched. It was a very sad scene. Walker went on to become a fine healthy polar bear and now lives in Highland Wildlife Park. 

This link goes to a newspaper's series of photos from the first day the twins emerged and happily played: Walker and Swimmer pics

I will never forget little Swimmer. He was here for such a short time, but touched so many.

Nuka's daughters

Nuka's daughters in Detroit, Astra and Laerke, also differ greatly in weight. When they were about a year old, Astra weighed 200 pounds, and Laerke weighed half that. But Laerke had been very fragile at birth and had to be handraised in order to survive. It is possible that medication she needed as a baby might have held back her growth. In any case, she is doing well, although will never be much bigger than she is now at about 300 pounds.

This also brings to mind another small but mighty bear, the formidable Miss Antonia of Gelsenkirchen Zoom. She was thought to be small but normal at birth, in Karlsruhe, but failed to grow like the other bears. She is a dwarf bear, weighing only about 300 pounds, but she is a feisty little thing, and is now, at age 32, is the oldest polar bear in the world (in a zoo, but wild bears don't live nearly as long as zoo bears so it is assumed she is the oldest).

Antonia of Gelsenkirchen ZOOM, at 300 pounds,
the oldest polar bear in the world

We all hope that both of Crystal's cubs grow up strong and healthy. When they come out to greet their public, I will visit as often as I can and watch these unusual twins grow and thrive. I am lucky that I live so near the only zoo with polar bear cubs in the world this year.

Crystal in September, just before denning up.
She was eating her vegetables.

Yes, Crystal, you must eat those vegetables.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Astra and Laerke - twins separated at birth

Laerke, the hand raised cub at the Detroit Zoo.
Her twin sister Astra was raised by their mother.

Astra plays with part of a spool and a bone joint in the Icepack region.

Laerke juggles the other part of the spool, in the Tundra area.

Twins Astra and Laerke will be two years old in two weeks. They share the same parents, and the same birthday. But these little girl cubs have lived separate and  parallel lives from almost the beginning.

Astra far away, and twin sister Laerke, closer. In October 2021.
They are separated by a moat.

They were born November 17, 2020, to parents Suka and Nuka in the Arctic Ring of Life of the Detroit Zoo. Suka had given birth during several previous seasons, but the cubs had been stillborn or short-lived. As the new mother was being watched via dencam, keepers could see that one of the cubs was struggling, and soon was nearly lifeless, so they intervened and took Laerke away for emergency medical help. 

So it happened that Astra was raised by her mother, and Laerke was bottle-fed and raised by humans. 

Astra and Laerke were the only cubs born in USA zoos in 2020, and no cubs have been born since, so they are the youngest polar bears in the USA.

In the spring of 2021, visitors to the zoo could see little cub Astra romping around the meadow with her mother Suka, while Laerke remained behind the scenes, a mysterious hidden cub. Later in the summer, Astra was introduced to the big saltwater pool, during which time father Nuka was rotated through whichever half of the habitat Suka and Astra were not occupying. 

Suka swimming with her cub Astra last year.

The Detroit Zoo has an amazing saltwater pool, with a viewing tunnel for visitors. Here are Suka and Astra last year.

Mother Suka has taught her daughter Astra through swimming and playing with her.  Laerke has had to learn on her own.

Mother Suka and daughter Astra play underwater games last year.

The underwater viewing tunnel is an astounding way
to experience the bears. Here are Astra and Suka.

Visitors get a unique close up view of the polar bears from the underwater tunnel.

Suka and Astra chasing underwater last year.

During those months, Laerke came out to play only after the zoo closed, and the public never saw her, except in a few tantalizing photos. 

Astra gained weight at a proper rate, but Laerke always lagged behind. As they approached their first birthday, Astra weighed 200 pounds, double that of her little sister. 

During those spring and  summer months, Astra was playing with her mom, learning social skills, swimming skills and more, learning how to be a bear. 

A scene from about a year ago, Astra, across the dividing moat, watches grizzly cub Jebbie and her sister Laerke,
maybe wanting to join in the fun.

Laerke on the left, her mother Suka on the right. While they are curious about each other, Suka does not realize that Laerke is her cub, and would feel that she had to defend Astra from the strange cub.
Photo from fall, 2021.

Laerke was doing well with her human caretakers, but needed a bear companion so she could learn the social skills of how to be a bear.  The zoo searched for such a cub, and a little grizzly bear boy named Jebbie, who had been found abandoned in Alaska, was brought to the Detroit Zoo as a companion for Laerke. This way both bears, Laerke and Jebbie the grizzly cub, could benefit by playing and interacting with another bear.

Jebbie and Laerke, last year.

The arrangement worked out very well, and the cubs played together for many months of important development, first behind the scenes, and then in October, the public could see Jebbie and Laerke play together in the tundra area for short periods, for Laerke had her limits, and would tire after an hour of hard play. Both cubs delighted in having a playmate, and benefited greatly from the friendship.

Laerke and Jebbie, in October of 2021.

Jebbie, being a grizzly and a land animal, would tend to stay on shore, and Laerke spent more time in the water, but these two were never far from each other.

Father Nuka in the Tundra area of the Detroit Zoo,
before his move to nearby Toledo.

To give Suka, her cubs and Jebbie more time to play outside, father Nuka moved to the Toledo Zoo, where he remains at this time, living with Suka's mother Crystal.

Laerke and Jebbie racing around in October of 2021.

The pairing of the polar and grizzly cubs worked well for most of a year, but Jebbie grew much faster than Laerke, and he also has some very long claws. Late this past summer, the keepers saw that Jebbie had outgrown the friendship. For safety reasons, the two cubs were separated, although they were still near each other in the bedroom area. In the fall, Jebbie was moved across the road to the grizzly bear area, where he had a small enclosure all to himself, while he awaited his big move. Jebbie is now in a huge wildlife sanctuary in Colorado, where has plenty of natural space, and he is reported to be doing very well there.  

Laerke chomps on a carrot, in September 2022.

Looking like she's playing a musical instrument, this is Laerke.

She is playing alone these days,  but Laerke is still having lots of fun. 

Showing her strength, Laerke plays.

Fluffy Laerke. The cubs had picked up lots of burrs in the Tundra area, so gardeners came in and cut those plants down.

So now Laerke is an "only child" again, but she is very good at entertaining herself with swimming in the big pool and tossing around toys. 

Astra with her mother Suka

Laerke with Keeper Rick. She keeps her eyes on him.

Keeper Rick throwing some snacks to Astra and Suka
 in the Ice Pack region of the Arctic Ring of Life.

Laerke has a real bond with her keepers, and likes to be near them, even when she is out in the enclosure. She needs this emotional support, just as Astra gets attention from her mother.

Laerke is drawn to the youngsters at the viewing window.

Laerke also loves the attention from the visitors, especially the children.

Laerke swimming to and fro.

Laerke still weighs a lot less than her sister. Astra now weighs about 500 pounds, and her little sister Laerke weighs 297. Their mom Suka weighs in at about 750 pounds. 

Laerke plays through the glass with a young visitor.

Laerke shows off her swimming skills.

A youngster is captivated by Laerke. 

Astra is stronger than her sister and has better coordination. Laerke got off to a rocky start, and she is still playing catch up. She has a strong spirit and plenty of determination, though.

Astra on the bottom, plays with a ring,
 as mother Suka tries to steal it.

Astra is strong and can lift the ring every which way.

Seal tricks from Astra.

Look Mom! Astra shows off for her mother Suka.

Laerke, the weaker twin playing by herself,
struggles to lift the ring, but still has fun with it.

Laerke frames herself with a fun toy,
 one that Jebbie liked to play with too.

The girls are approaching their second birthday, to be celebrated on November 17. The plan, as I understand it, is that when Astra is weaned and separated from Suka, the girls may very well be reunited, and Laerke will again have a playmate.

Astra and Suka, sometimes together, often apart these days.

Mother Suka is gradually distancing herself from Astra, preparing for weaning, but right now, there is still some nursing going on.

It is the way of polar bear world that cubs leave to start life on their own at about the age of two in the wild. Then father Nuka can return from Toledo, and be reunited with Suka. 

Astra swimming in the viewing tunnel area.
 She can swim and play all day.

Laerke swims well enough, but she doesn't have the stamina of her sister, and she wants to go back inside after swimming for an hour.

Laerke is still a lot smaller than her sister, so reuniting the two may be put off for awhile.

This is pure speculation, but I hear that Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma Washington, after the death of elderly bears Boris and Blizzard, is redoing its polar bear habitat, and will be home to some polar bears in 2023. Maybe that is where the twins will end up. 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Columbus Anana has passed away


A young Anana, in 2011.

She was so young, just short of her 16th birthday. Anana of the Columbus Zoo is gone now.

Anana and her twin sister Aurora were born at the Toledo Zoo on November 25, 2006, to Belgian born Crystal, and Chicago born Marty. They were the first cubs from this prolific pair, who went on to give us Siku, twins Suka and Sakari, Hope and Borealis (Bo). 

Since her mother Crystal was born in Belgium, Anana also had  many cousins in Europe. 

Aurora on the left, Anana with the barrel.

Anana, playing in the water.

As young cubs, they spent a year in Pittsburgh, then moved into the brand new gorgeous polar bear habitat, the Polar Frontier, in the Columbus Zoo, which opened in the Spring of 2010.

To tell the girls apart, keepers started putting some dark paint on Aurora's paw. 

Anana walking, and twin sister Aurora sitting.

Anana loved her blue barrels.

Anana behind, Aurora on right.

In the summer of 2012, handsome wildborn Nanuq arrived and wooed both sisters. Aurora gave birth to Nora in 2015, and the next year, Aurora had twins, Nuniq and Neva, and Anana gave birth to Amelia Gray. Sadly, Nanuq passed away from the illnesses of old age in 2017.

It all changed when Nanuq, in center, arrived. Anana on the left.
Aurora (on the right) has her paw painted.

Anana as a mom, to cub Amelia Gray.

Little Amelia Gray and Anana

Amelia Gray and mom Anana.

Amelia Gray gives her mom a love bite.

A new male bear, Lee, came along and Aurora gave birth to Kulu in 2019. To make room for the cub, Lee moved to Louisville. When Kulu was old enough, Auntie Anana became very involved in his life, and was the best playmate a cub could wish for.

Anana with her nephew Kulu.

Auntie Anana on left, with Kulu (center) and his mother Aurora.

Anana and her nephew Kulu loved their water battles.

After Kulu left for Como Zoo in Minnesota last fall, it was just the two sisters again. Anana and Aurora.

An Artificial Insemination attempt was made last March for both girls, using the sperm from Lee, who was still living in Louisville. The summer came and went, and everything seemed fine. Aurora, surprisingly enough, decided to den up in September. 

Anana in the underwater viewing area.

All was not well with Anana, however. Some unspecified health problems kept her behind the scenes for the past month, and her health declined rapidly in recent days. She was put to sleep on Wednesday, October 12. We may find out her cause of declining health in a few weeks.

The loss of Anana is a devastating blow to all those who loved her, especially her keepers who have known her for most of her life. Aurora will wonder where her twin sister has gone, but they have been separated before, when one or both were busy with cubs.

It is also a loss for the polar bear breeding program, for Anana was a proven mother, and there was hope for more cubs in the future.

Columbus Zoo has a stunningly beautiful polar bear habitat, and the bears seem to really enjoy the pools, the live fish, all the dead trees on which to climb, the caves. It is so well planned. And for now, there is only Aurora, and the possibility of progeny. If Aurora does indeed give birth, it will be the first time AI has been successful on a polar bear, which has delayed implantation, greatly complicating the process.

Aurora and Anana, in 2011.

Columbus is close by, and I visited often over the years. I last saw Anana in mid August, and she was just napping in the central area, in the shade of the tunnel, where I have often seen her before. She woke for a moment, looked at me, and I smiled back. I never thought this would be the last time I would see her.

For now, we dwell on the happy memories of watching Anana sunning herself next to her sister, playing with her blue barrels, diving for life fish, swimming happily in the rain, jumping up at the visitors at the window, and playing with her daughter Amelia Gray, and her nephew Kulu. She had a good life, just not nearly long enough.

My last photo of Anana, taken in mid-August 2022.