Saturday, May 27, 2023

The last days of Koluk


Koluk two weeks ago

When visitors enter ABQ Biopark in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the first thing they see is a huge marquee photo of polar bear brothers Kiska and Koluk above the entrance gate.

Above the ticket taking booths at ABQ Zoo, the polar bears greet you.
Now news has come that one of those gorgeous bears, Koluk, has passed away.

When I visited ABQ Biopark in Albuquerque two weeks ago, I couldn't guess that one of the twin brother bears I had come to see would be gone so soon.

I had planned to wrote a piece on my visit to the bear brothers in the desert, and I still will do that, but sadly, I must write a farewell to Koluk, the most handsome of polar bears. 

Kiska is front, Koluk in back

Koluk and Kiska were born in Salt Lake City in November of 1996, so they were both getting up there in years, but both of them looked pretty hefty and healthy for male bears of 26 years. However, I could tell that something was up with Koluk, for his fur, usually green with algae from all his swimming, was white. He hadn't been in the water for quite awhile. His movements were slower. He kept to himself. He was just not his fun-loving self.

Koluk's fur was white, not its usual algae green.

 Koluk spent much more time behind the scenes than his twin brother. While Kiska was out and about and having fun, Koluk had hidden himself away much of the time. Even when the keeper threw the special daily treat of Rainbow Trout into the water, Koluk didn't want to wade in to retrieve it. But wade in he did, with a complaining look, and got the fish.

Koluk did wade in a bit to get the rainbow trout.

Koluk then retreated onto dry land to shake off and eat his prize.

Koluk, always the swimmer, would rather remain on shore during his final weeks. Kiska still dives right in.

I spent four days at the zoo, and on Monday, May 15, I waved goodbye to the the polar bear brothers, wondering if this would be the last time I would see Koluk, for I suspected he wasn't well.

The brothers on Mother's Day, under a brilliant sky. Koluk on the left.

I told the keeper, whom I had met last year, that I was worried about Koluk. He had slowed down so much, was staying out of sight mostly, and hadn't been in the water at all, which was not like him. She said that Koluk had shown some behavior changes for the past couple of weeks, but the changes were pretty recent and hopefully he should  get back to normal and be fine. 


But on Friday, May 19, Koluk underwent an examination while under anesthesia, and the vets found that he had advanced liver and kidney failure. During the next week, they did what they could, but his health declined faster than expected, and he was released from this life on Friday, May 26.

He and his twin brother came from the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City to Albuquerque when they were just ten months old, so they have lived in the zoo in the desert for a quarter of a century.

Their mother was Chinook, descended from Bruno and Hilda of the Memphis Zoo, and as such they are related to a good number of European bears descended from CW, daughter of Bruno, her daughter Ilka, and Freedom, her granddaughter. Kiska and Koluk's father was Andy, descended from Becky and Herman Jr. of the Buffalo Zoo. 

 The ABQ Biopark Zoo (then the Rio Grande Zoo) enclosure was new when they came, has a lower pool and upper pool, as well as a waterfall and slide, which the bears would sometimes climb up.

Koluk in the water, as was his usual habit, last summer.

The brothers swimming together in June of 2022.

In their early days in ABQ, their young niece Anoki, daughter of their sister Aurora, came to live with them for awhile too. She is now living in Rochester NY, where she was born.

Koluk in the water, Kiska on shore, in June of 2022.

Koluk and Kiska were brothers of the late Anana of Buffalo, Brookfield, Cincinnati and Detroit, and half brothers of the late Aurora, and also Denali who lives in Japan and is father of eight cubs there. They were uncles of Luna of the Buffalo Zoo (daughter of Anana), and also Lee, Anoki, Peyton and Haley, children of Aurora.

Koluk was a handsome bear, with a magnificent head. He was chosen by Joel Sartore for his photographic Animal Ark, featured in National Geographic. 

He was playful all his life, and even sometimes threw balls and other toys over the fence to the visitors.

Koluk playing with balls, last summer.
 He was always one to have fun with his toys.

In 2019 he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. After that, when it was fish throwing time, the keepers would invite Kiska to do his cliff dive, but Koluk was restricted to getting his fish at ground level.


The last photo I took of Koluk (in back) on May 15. Eleven days later he was gone. Right after the fish throw, Koluk retreated into the bedroom area, all worn out. That's Kiska in front, ready for more adventures.

Kiska and Koluk are much like that other pair of twin brothers, Neil and Buzz in Como Zoo in St. Paul Minnesota, about a year older than Kiska and Koluk, together all their lives. When Buzz died a few years ago, Neil was alone, but before too long, an older lady bear named Nan moved in, and then three year old Kulu came along, and Neil was not alone any longer. Maybe a companion can be found for Kiska. If not, Kiska will be just fine on his own.

During my four days at the zoo, I noticed that Kiska had, in a sense, already moved on and was behaving independently. He did take note of his brother, and they spent some time together, mostly in the front cave area in the morning, eating breakfast together, enjoying the polar bear chow spread out for them with extra fruits and vegetables.  But Kiska spent his days in fun activities, tossing and destroying a barrel, swimming in the deep pool, doing his seven step pacing dance on the ledge (although not as much as he used to). Koluk sometimes came out to watch, but mostly stayed inside.

The polar bear brothers have been a big part of the ABQ Biopark Zoo for a quarter century, and Koluk will surely be missed by his many fans and friends, and especially by his keepers, who loved him dearly. 

Rest in Peace, big guy.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Happy Mother's Day to Crystal, Gerda and Victoria

 Of course all polar bear mothers deserve appreciation, especially on Mother's Day. But this story will focus on the new moms who gave birth last November and December, even though we didn't hear about Victoria's secret surprise until just a few weeks ago. 

Kallu and Kallik  - photo by the Toledo Zoo.

In December news came of  the birth of twins in the Toledo Zoo, to veteran mother Crystal and her companion Nuka. The cubs were born on November 11, but kept secret for a few weeks, announced on December 1. For a time, it seemed like those might be the only cubs born worldwide in a zoo this year.  And there was a public dencam so we could watch the babies grow. Interestingly enough, one of the cubs was much larger than the other.

We later learned that the twins are boys, given the names Kallik and Kallu (Thunder and Lightning). Little Kallik has recently caught up and now is almost as big as his brother. It has been observed that the little one has grown into the bolder and braver brother, the first to take to the pool inside, and willing to wander away from mother for longer periods. Kallu, the bigger brother, was quite hesitant to step into the kiddie pool, and his little brother kept trying to persuade him, maybe even giving him a little push sometimes. Now, both brothers seem comfortable in the water.

The Toledo Twins were make their public debut on Friday, April 28, and everyone was so excited. However, when the big day came, the boys were intimidated by the bigger space outside, and wanted to play with their toys in the familiar areas of the dig yard and inside pool room. The interior dencam was turned back on, so the fans could see that the cubs were fine. Their public debut was rescheduled for the following Friday, May 5, and this time the cubs were ready and raring to go.

Crystal and her cubs - Photo by the Toledo Zoo.
Crystal is already the mother of twins Aurora and the late Anana, son Siku, twins Suka and Sakari, daughter Hope and son Borealis, all with the late Marty as the father. Crystal is also the grandmother of seven cubs.

Crystal with her cubs in the den, dencam photo
The father of Kallik and Kallu is Nuka, who is also the father of 2 year old twin girls in Detroit, with the mother being Crystal's grown daughter Suka. Papa Nuka is now back in Detroit.

Nuka (my photo)
For several months, we all thought that Crystal's twins might be the only cubs born in a zoo worldwide. But there were two other mothers who were denned up with little ones after having secretly given birth in December. 

Gerda and her daughters. (photo by оксана калинина)

In early February, we learned that Gerda in Novosibirsk in Siberia, Russia had given birth to twins on December 16. These cubs made their public debut in the middle of March, with much snow still on the ground. We have learned that these twins are girls, but no names have been announced yet. There is a naming contest. The father is Kraisin,  better known to his friends as Kai.

Gerda is an experienced mother, having raised Shilka (who now lives in Japan), Rostik (who was sent to China), and twins Shauna and Nordi, a girl and a boy, who are now about four years old and living somewhere behind the scenes in the Novosibirsk Zoo. Gerda is a grandmother, since Shilka has a two year old daughter Ho-chan.

Gerda was born in Moscow in 2007 to Simona and Wrangel. She is sister to Vera, mother of the famous Flocke, Gerda's grandmother was Uslada of St. Petersburg, who was the mother of 16 cubs so there are many cousins throughout Europe and Russia.

Victoria's cub - Photo by Hagenbeck Zoo

Because the European polar bear breeding program has been a little too successful, and there is a shortage of suitable zoo homes, there has been a halt to breeding, with many of the bears moved to all girl or all boy groups. So we expected there would be no cubs in Europe this season.

But at the very end of April, we had a surprise. Victoria and Kap of Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany produced a mysterious secret cub born December 19. This cub still has no name, we don't know if it is a boy or girl yet, and the cub is still not in the public eye.

Victoria in 2014 (with Blizzard)

At 20 years of age, Victoria is an older lady who had never given birth up until now, so of course everyone thought that a cub was out of the question. Older lady bears can become mothers, of course, but almost always they have had cubs before. Victoria had been for many years with Blizzard, who was later found to be sterile. Then Kap arrived in the spring of 2020, but still no cubs, until now. This is a first cub for Kap too, who has spent much of his life alone in Neumünster, then a short time in Karlsruhe, where I finally met him. Kap is half brother of Raspi, and several other bears. 

Kap when I visited him in Karlsruhe in 2017
Victoria's genes are especially valuable since she isn't related to other bears. Her mother Fanny gave birth to Victoria in Hagenbeck, and Victoria lived there most of her life except for a short stay in Zoo am Meer in Bremerhaven, while the zoo was building the new walrus-polar bear-penguin complex.

Fanny did have another cub, Victoria's older brother named Charly, who lived out his life in SeaWorld San Diego, and died in 2012. 

Victoria is the product of several generations of inbreeding, as zoos were not so careful in those days. One again, it is a miracle that she had this cub.

European polar bear cubs usually start appearing in public in mid-March. So why is the Hagenbeck cub still behind the scenes? My theory is that the enclosure, while fairly new, was not designed with young cubs in mind, being rocky and sort of steep. There is limited space for visitors who want to see the bears. The complex, made for polar bears, penguins and walruses, gave much more emphasis to the walruses, and most polar bear fans are disappointed in the new enclosure.

Mother Victoria and the keepers may be waiting for the cub to mature a bit more before letting it wander around the rocky habitat. There seems to be a pool accessible to the cub at the top, for there is a video with the cub swimming in the background, and I believe there is a flat area up there, but it is out of sight from visitors. The cub is about five months old, so hopefully he or she will make a public debut before too long, and we will learn a bit more.

The Hagenbeck polar bear enclosure. - my photo

Happy Mother's Day to all the polar bear mothers. I hope to visit Crystal and her little family one day very soon, and maybe make a trip to Hamburg to see Victoria and her offspring too.