Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Arctic Sea Ice Day at the Louisville Zoo


Qannik enjoys the misting fan.

Qannik and her tub of ice.

Lee roamed the large enclosure, munching on grass.

Arctic Sea Ice Day, held every year on July 15, was created by Polar Bears International to bring attention to the crisis of accelerating loss of Arctic sea ice.


Many zoos, including the Louisville Zoo, use the occasion to educate the public about the need for sea ice in cooling the planet, why it is important for arctic wildlife, and steps we can take to help the environment, such as turning the lights off, setting the thermostat higher in summer and lower in winter, and diving more efficient vehicles.

A sign made by a student urges people to purchase food grown locally, to reduce your carbon footprint. Other signs suggested turning lights off when you leave the room, and other tips for saving energy.

It is a day when visitors to the Louisville Zoo can most likely see both polar bears who live there. During the rest of the year, the two polar bears in Louisville are rotated through two exhibit areas, taking turns with three grizzly bears, so there are times when you won't see a polar bear at all. But on Arctic Sea Ice Day, the spotlight is on the polar bears, so it is a great opportunity to see both Lee and Qannik.

My polar bear friend Debbie takes a photo of "wild child" Qannik.

Qannik was in Polar Bear Alley, cooling off in a spot in the center where a strategically placed fan blew a refreshing mist down from the ceiling, She loved it. There was also big tub of ice for her playtime enjoyment.

A chunk of token "sea ice" for Qannik.

Some chunks of ice that the keepers had frozen in pails were distributed throughout in both enclosures.

Qannik was roaming around in Polar Bear Alley. The entire polar bear area is called Glacier Run, set up to look like a gold mining camp on the edge of the Arctic wilderness, with seals and sea lions nearby. 

Qannik was born in a den in an Alaskan oil field in January of 2011. She got separated from her mother and sister in a blizzard, and was rescued as an underweight 15 pound cub, recovered at the Alaska Zoo, and came to Louisville in late June of 2011. She remains property of Fish and Wildlife so is not allowed to be part of the breeding program.

Qannik sits in the center of Polar Bear Alley,
where a highly placed fan is blowing a cooling mist down upon her..

Qannik currently weighs 505 pounds.

That fan feels good.
 She can also go downstairs to her air conditioned bedroom.

Polar Bear Alley, with Qannik at the center.
The larger pool area, where Lee was spending the morning,
 is just across the way.

The male polar bear at the Louisville Zoo is Lee, who was born in Rochester NY in 1999, and has lived in Lincoln Park in Chicago, Detroit, Denver, and most recently in Columbus where he fathered 2 year old Kulu (currently in Como Zoo in Minnesota). Lee came to Louisville in late 2020.

Handsome Lee in Louisville.

Lee weighs in at 1040 pounds right now.

Lee was just swimming around, keeping cool and finding snacks.

  The docents at the Louisville Zoo invited curious visitors to touch a polar bear claw to feel the coarse hollow hairs of a bear. 

A Louisville Zoo docent shows off the model of a polar bear skull, pointing out the space behind the fangs. 

Visitors could also examin a resin model of a polar bear skull, and see how the open jaws have a space that is just the right size for a seal head, to grab and hold it.

Arki's paw print

There is also a cast taken from former Louisville Zoo resident Arki's paw, to show how the wide pads help support a polar bear walking on ice and snow, like a snowshoe. Arki, mother of Hudson, Payton, and the late Marty, lived most of her life in Brookfield Zoo, and retired to Louisville in 2011. She died in 2013. She was the grandmother or great grandmother of nearly all the younger polar bears we have in the USA.

A zoo docent shows a polar bear claw with fur to a visitor.
 The educators explained the importance of Arctic Sea Ice, and how polar bears depend upon it to survive.
 The Arctic Sea Ice forms later every year, and melts earlier,
 giving the polar bears less time to find the food they need.

The Arctic is now warming at three times the rate as the rest of the planet, causing changes to this crucial environment.

Sea ice is the foundation for the ecosystem of marine life, the food chain that includes plankton, fish, seals, beluga whales, walrus, polar bears and everything in between. 

Polar bears hunt mainly on the ice, especially ringed seals and bearded seals. Without the ice, there will be fewer seals. And the polar bears are not agile enough to catch their dinner in the water. With less food for the polar bears, there will be fewer cubs. The loss of sea ice is devastating to the polar bear population.

The loss of sea ice also drives the polar bears to human communities, where they rummage through the garbage and  roam the streets in search of food, bringing the bears into conflict with humans. It is dangerous for the bears and the humans.

Since the Arctic, which serves as the "air conditioner" for the rest of the planet, is warming and losing sea ice, we are now seeing temperatures rise for the rest of us as well, with drought, wildfires, stronger storms and flooding as a result. Currently, parts of the US and Europe are suffering through deadly heatwaves and devastating wildfires. 

Lee imitates and iceberg, under a See Ice Day sign.

Lee captures retrieves some lettuce.
Yes, polar bears like fruits and vegetables.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Little Hippo Matilda is one year old


Little Matilda of ABQ Biopark in Albuquerque NM

Matilda with her favorite toy. 

Matilda, the Nile Hippo baby of the ABQ Biopark, will celebrate her first birthday on July 19, 2022, 

Matilda loves her green ball.

Matilda is the third offspring of parents Karen and Moe at the Biopark. 

Mama Karen plays with Matilda and her ball.

Karen and Moe's first baby was a little girl named Boopie, now going by the name of Biopelo, who is in Dallas now and is mother of a little hippo born in 2019.

Their second baby, born in 2015, was named Brynn, until he moved to San Antonio Zoo to be with Karen's mother Uma, who is his grandmother, and now he goes by Timothy. 

Karen's late father Tumbo (Matilda and Timothy's grandfather) was a little bit famous too. He was featured on the cover of National Geographic in 2016 as the hippo photographed at San Antonio Zoo by Joel Santore for his well known Photo Ark.  Tumbo was 41 when he was photographed. He died at almost age 43, sadly. Click on the link below to see Tumbo.

Timothy is well known for his many charming and lovelorn letters to a famous little hippo girl in Cincinnati, Fiona.  Maybe those two will get together someday.

Matilda on shore with the beloved green ball. 

I visited Matilda at the end of June at the ABQ Biopark, and found her playing with her big green ball. She loved to roll it around, and try to bite it. Her mom Karen seemed to like the ball too.

Matilda uses her open mouth to steer the ball.

Matilda noses the ball.

She has learned to use her mouth to aim the ball,
 almost like she wants to eat it.

Karen chases Matilda and Matilda chases the ball.

Matilda has a large flat area, perfect for a game of ball.

 Babies and toddlers all seem to love playing with a ball. 

There is no underwater hippo viewing at ABQ Biopark,
but it was easy to see Matilda flying around the pool with her ball.

Attack mom and the ball at the same time.

Like a tug of war, Matilda and her mom go for the same prize.

When Matilda pushed the ball into the pool, it was even more fun. She could splash and push it all around. 

Matilda would "porpoise" out of the water to get the ball.

Hippos will often "porpoise" to the top of the pool, and Matilda liked to leap out at the ball, pushing it here and there.

So much splashing in the game of water polo.

Matilda thinks she is a seal, going to balance that ball on her nose.

Sometimes mom Karen got into the game, but daddy Moe seemed to just want to chill out.

Maybe Mom Karen wants to play too.
Matilda just wanted to play all day. Many zoo visitors gathered on the bridge to watch the little hippo play in the pool. 

Sometimes Matilda seemed to be biting the ball.

A content child.

Another score for Matilda.

And here's the whole family. Daddy Mo is behind Matilda,
 and Mom Karen has the ball.

Happy first birthday to Matilda.  Have a ball, little girl.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Twin brothers in the desert


Koluk, top, and Kiska below, 
waiting for the keeper to throw some fish

Kiska and Koluk were born in Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, in the high desert of Utah, on November 19, 1996, and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico when they were still cubs. Their parents were Chinook and Andy. 

Koluk in the water, as usual, and Kiska on dry land.

So how do polar thrive in a desert environment? Very well, it seems. Polar bears are adaptable.

The brothers are a lot more active in the winter, and especially enjoy the snow days in the desert, but find great ways to keep cool in the summer.  ABQ Biopark, on the banks of the Rio Grande River, calls their polar bear habitat Inukshuk Bay, all concrete, but there is a deep pool built up in the center of the habitat, rather like a mountain, and a lower swimming area too. Their bedrooms are air conditioned, and they always have the option of going inside.

Koluk swimming around the lower window.

There is even a slide with water whooshing down, but the bears don't actually use it as a slide.

Kiska climbing up the water slide.

 They do climb up and down that slide, very sure-footed as they are. In addition to the viewing from above, visitors can see the bears through windows along a tunnel, where one window shows the lower swimming area, the center window shows the underwater activity of the bears in the 14 foot deep diving pool, and the third window shows a shaded cave area and the door leading to the indoor bedrooms.

Kiska wants to take a nap in front of the shady right  window,
 and Koluk carries a chunk of meat inside.

Koluk (pronounced KaLUKE with the accent on the second syllable) spends a lot more time in the water, and has a greenish cast to his fur as a result of harmless algae growth in the hollow hairs of his fur.


 Kiska is more active, but spends less time in the water.


Although they are twins, they are easy to tell apart. For one thing, Koluk is much greener, at least at this time of year, but he also weighs about a hundred pounds more, and has a craggy shaggy neck and head. Kiska is pretty clean looking, and has a dark line arching over his nose. Both brothers have that pouty lower lip, the same as their late sister Anana. Kiska also has the same lounging poses as his sister, some of the same mannerisms. Kiska is a lot more streamlined than his heavier brother.

Koluk above, Kiska below.

The polar bear brothers are served their main breakfast separately inside, but every morning they get some treats in the habitat.

The keeper distributes some snacks early in the day. See the fish?

The first day I visited, polar bear kibble was spread here and there, plus carrots, sweet potatoes and apples, lured the bears out to have a snack. Oh yes, there was some fish too.

Kiska starts the day with polar bear kibble, fruits and vegetables

On the second morning of my visit, the keeper had put out two watermelons: one floating in the high pool, and the other in the lower pool. One was intended for Kiska, and the lower melon was for Koluk, but somehow, Kiska got both. Koluk did enjoy some of the leftover pieces of rind.

Kiska leaps into the high pool to get a watermelon.

Kiska first appeared above the upper pool, then dove in to get the melon, eating most of it perched on the ledge. Polar bears have very good balance.

Kiska retrieves the first melon

Kiska gets his prize

Kiska shakes it off.

It's a watermelon

Watermelon smiles.

Then Kiska spotted the second melon in the lower pool. Koluk was busy with something else and had not seen it, so Kiska dove in, grabbed the melon and made a second breakfast of it.

Kiska gets the good parts of the watermelon. 

By the time Koluk had noticed the melons, most of the sweet juicy part was gone, so he nibbled what he could find, and munched on the rind.

Koluk gets the leftovers.

Still yummy, says Koluk

In the early afternoon of both days of my visit, the keeper would appear with a bucket of rainbow trout, and the brothers would get very excited, for they knew what was coming. The keeper would call one of their names, get that bear's attention, and then throw a fish for him. 

Kiska with a fish
For Kiska, the keeper would throw a fish (usually two fish, to make it seem worthwhile for him to climb up there, she said) into the upper pool. He would climb up, retrieve the fish, and then she would target the next fish for him in the lower pool so he would perform a spectacular dive to get it, which is not only good exercise and fun for him, but a thrill for the visitors. I was right next to the keeper, so I didn't get a good photo of Kiska diving, but it was quite a crowd pleaser. And there was quite a crowd there, watching the bears go for their fish.

My poor view of Kiska's spectacular dive,
as I was standing next to the keeper throwing fish.

For Koluk, she would get his attention, and then throw the fish at the far end of the lower pool. No high dive for him, for he has been diagnosed with heart problems, and they don't want to stress him. 

Koluk with his trout
They do love the trout, but their favorite food is salmon, which they sometimes get when it is donated.

At age 25, they are just a year younger than Neil of Como Zoo, who holds the honor of being the oldest male polar bear in a US zoo.

Koluk weighs about 750 pounds, although he has avoided stepping on the scale lately. Kiska has been weighed, and comes in at 650 pounds.

Kiska's back end view
Kiska and Koluk came to what was then the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque when they were 11 months old. At some point, the zoo changed its name to ABQ BioPark. The brothers are both listed as neutered, although Kiska retains one testicle. Something interrupted the surgery, and it was only half done. It is possible that he is still fertile, according to the keeper.

Anoki, who is the daughter of Kiska and Koluk's late half sister Aurora in Rochester New York, and the same age as the brothers, joined them in Albuquerque just a few months after they arrived, and stayed for ten years, finally moving to Maryland in 2008, where she stayed for another ten years. She has since moved back to Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, where she was born.  

Handsome Koluk has recently been immortalized by photographer Joel Sartore through his well known Photo Ark, a project to capture images of as many species as he can. There is a magnificent head shot of Koluk where his pouty lower lip is very obvious, reminding me very much of Kiska and Koluk's younger sister Anana, who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo for a few years before moving to Detroit, where she died of heart failure during the winter.  Koluk was chosen, I am sure, because he is such an impressive bear, with a massive head and neck, but also an expressive face. Click the link below to see Koluk in the Photo Ark.

Koluk in Joel Sartore's Photo Ark

The boys are very playful. While they don't often play together when out in the enclosure, they do have fun together behind the scenes, their keeper reported.

Koluk has a little game where he likes to "pop" a little red ball and see it bounce. 

Koluk playing with his little red ball.

Kiska once used a big blue plastic lid as a frisbee and threw it up to a young visitor, over and over, until he got it right.

Koluk and Kiska have relatives around the world. Their niece Luna, daughter of their late sister Anana, lives in Buffalo. Their late half sister Aurora left behind sons Lee of Louisville, and daughters Hayley of Memphis, Anana of North Carolina, and their companion of many years Anoki, of Rochester NY.

The twins also have a half brother, Denali, who lives in Japan and has fathered eight cubs there.

Kiska and Koluk's mother Chinook was born in Memphis, and was half sister to CW and Elvis, who moved to Europe, so there are many cousins there.

Through their father Andy they are closely related to Koda, Nuka, Snowflake, the late Rizzo, and also the late Arturo, who was famously the subject of many petitions and concern for him in his home in Argentina.

It was interesting to see how these two brothers are getting along in that zoo next to the Rio Grande. The keepers give them plenty of enrichment, a great variety of toys. One of the docents remarked that you never see either one of the boys pacing, for they always have something fun to do.

Koluk and Kiska of ABQ Biopark.