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. 


  1. Molly This is a fascinating and moving story with beautiful pictures.
    The difference between Astra and Laerke shows why Polar Bear mums are so crucial.
    It would be nice if the two sisters could meet.