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.

1 comment:

  1. It reminds me of feeding Lars in Aalborg and learning later that the same thing happened to him.
    Of course in the wild 26 would be old for a male Polar.
    Perhaps their diet needs to be chsnged.
    Thsnk you for this beautiful tribute