Polar Bear Morning

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Chinook enjoyed some "snowfall" back in February.

Chinook enjoyed some “snowfall” back in February.

Polar bears in the Arctic spend their days hunting and sleeping after a good meal. For some, these meals need to last them during the upcoming months when the Arctic ice has melted, and they are forced to spend their days on land waiting for the fall cold to once again form the very important ice. For Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq, their days at the San Diego Zoo typically begin at 6:20 a.m. when the keepers arrive at the polar bear bedroom building: breakfast time.

All the bears are brought into the building, whether from the main exhibit or polar yard, and go into separate bedrooms. Each bear has a set amount of food, based on nutritional need and calorie requirement, prepared and split into two or three pans. Breakfast is the bears’ favorite meal and their largest meal of the day! It includes a combination of meat, fat, fish, and dog chow. Kalluk has been known to eat 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms) of food in one day! In the Arctic, ringed seals are a polar bear’s primary food, but we don’t offer that here. Although fish is often added to zoo polar bear diets, it is done for nutritional reasons: polar bears don’t eat fish in the wild. After breakfast, the bears get a few carrots to keep those teeth clean and fill any tummy space left open.

In the Arctic, a polar bear’s diet consists of 90- to 95-percent fat. They are extremely efficient digesters of fat and can metabolize almost 95 percent of it to body fat. That process also provides great hydration, as the only water available in the wild Arctic is either frozen or salt. If our trio were to eat that much fat, they would be very uncomfortable in San Diego’s warmth. Instead, we reduce the fat in their diet to just 10 to 15 percent and have them fill up on food they get virtually no calories from such, as carrots.

While the bears are eating, keepers are cleaning the exhibit, changing enrichment items, and grooming the bedding. Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq have the choice of two large mulch beds, the sandy beach and grass, the sandbox, and a variety of palm fronds or ginger branches. Our final morning task is to fill four to five buckets with carrots for our trio. The buckets allow the bears to take their carrots anywhere they choose to eat them; this is often onto one of their beds or even into the pool. Polar bears like to have choice and control in their lives, even if it means moving their carrot bucket 6 inches (15 centimeters) to the left and using it as a pillow when it is empty (I’m talking about you, Kalluk!).

At around 9 a.m., all three bears head out to the main exhibit. The keepers in the building then begin cleaning of bedrooms, which are typically filled with hay, burlap bags, torn-up cardboard, and plastic kiddie pools used for beds. Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq are outside, representing their wild cousins and helping Zoo guests and Polar Cam viewers connect to the nature of the Arctic. We protect what we know and love. Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq are very good at inspiring all of us to know and love polar bears. Watch them daily on Polar Cam!

Coming soon: Polar Bear Mid-Day

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Back to Normal.