Polar Bears: What IS Going On?

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Tatqiq explores the new yard.

Tatqiq explores the new yard.

Good question! First, the construction is done. The new management yard has only the aesthetic details to be done: topsoil, planting, logs, etc. Most of this will be done over the next few weeks as time permits or if/when Chinook decides she no longer needs to venture anywhere but her den.

Yes, all is complete inside for Chinook to remove herself whenever she wants. Every day our girl lets us know how she is doing. Mostly she is content hanging out with her keeper in the bedroom area while we work. But sometimes she still wants to go out to the yard or the exhibit to enjoy a quick soak and rub and then come back inside. Yes, she is still very cooperative for ultrasounds each week. And we’ve not yet been able to detect a pregnancy. So keep your fingers crossed! Remember: with the delayed implantation and length of gestation, we may not see cubs until next year if we count from the last day of breeding. Oh, a long wait may be ahead!

So far, Chinook isn’t showing any interest in spending time in her den. We built it in one of her favorite sleeping areas. It is completely covered so no light comes in except through the doorway. We have a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature so it stays comfortable for her. The floor is made of recycled plastic and is raised up just enough to allow for any moisture to travel beneath and into a drain. Polar bear cubs have no ability to thermo-regulate at first, so it necessary to protect them from cold but still keep the den cool for Mom.

Chinook is still making beautiful beds for sleeping. Her preference has always been Bermuda hay, but lately she is choosing pine needles we collect from around the area. Chinook is from the western Hudson Bay population of polar bears; this means the den she was born in was first dug in frozen peat with tree roots as the roof support. Her mother would then have dug a second chamber into the snow after it drifted into a deep pile outside the earthen den. Chinook’s den is built adjacent to another bedroom we have darkened, and she could use it as a second chamber. Right now, though, she prefers to sleep in another area of the building. Oh, what will our girl choose?

What happened when we first gave the bears access to the new management yard? Chinook went out when her keeper was out by the exhibit and went back in when her keeper went inside. An interesting behavior for our independent girl! Kalluk only stuck his head out and was more interested in his kiddie pool inside, but Tatqiq became queen of the hill! She explored and rubbed on the bushes and made great muddy paw prints from the pool. We give Chinook access to the yard every day. You may sometimes be able to see her in the yard from the Polar Cam. She looks absolutely beautiful with the trees and bushes alongside.

Kalluk and Tatqiq are keeping themselves well occupied out front. Tatqiq is filling the “dirty” bear role for Chinook. This is not a role that is unfamiliar to her. When she was a cub, she would get so brown that guests would sometimes ask, “At what age do polar bears turn white?” And Kalluk has commandeered all the kiddie pools. He has used them well. We have only one left that can be recognized by any original shape! We’ll have to wait until next summer to get new ones. Until then, both are now enjoying sleeping in the mulch piles and sandy beach area of the exhibit and making pillows from the palm wraps and ginger branches our horticulture department provides.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

We now have video of one of Chinook’s ultrasound procedures.