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About Author: JoAnne Simerson

Posts by JoAnne Simerson

145

Polar Bear IDs

Tatqiq wrestles with a snowball.

Tatqiq wrestles with a snowball.

Here are some hints on how to tell which of our beautiful polar bears you may be watching at any given time on Polar Cam:

Chinook: Everything about Chinook is round from every angle. Although the beauty mark under her left eye was removed (see post Polar Bears: Chinook and Her Beauty Mark), there is still a noticeable dark mark where her fur has not grown. When she sleeps, she is normally on her belly and rarely on her side. Chinook often sleeps just to the left of the waterfall, back by the double doors, on the beach at night, or in either mulch bed.

Kalluk: Obviously much larger than either female, Kalluk’s favorite rest spots are the middle rock shelter, back double doors, and the plunge point. So far, he is the only one who sleeps in the sandbox under the middle shelter.

Tatqiq: Long and lean with a nicely round belly, Tatqiq’s face is narrow and almost a mini-version of Kalluk’s face. Her favorite sleeping spot is the shelter by the beach. She normally sleeps on her side, but if she’s on her belly, she stretches her back legs out behind and rests her feet above her back. It looks uncomfortable, but Tatqiq loves it!

All three bears are capable of covering themselves in dirt, but Kalluk usually does just one side while both girls go for the total look. Happy polar bear watching!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Night.

UPDATE AUGUST 1, 2013:

SNOW DAY FOR POLAR BEARS! Help us raise the funds needed to provide our three bruins with a wonderful day of snow through our Animal Care Wish List. Offered in $10 increments, choose which bear you’d like to give “snowballs” to!

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Polar Bear Night

Tatqiq loves that cold stuff!

Tatqiq loves that cold stuff!

Polar bears have very good eyesight both in light and dark. They spend half of the year in one or the other in the dramatic days of winter and summer in the Arctic. To survive, a polar bear must eat a seal at least every three to four days. When not hunting, polar bears are resting, perhaps as much as 20 hours a day. Polar bears are great bed makers, building nest-like beds in seaweed piled up on the coast, digging deep caves of snow into the bluffs, or resting in a shallow snow bed and letting the blowing snow cover them, making for a snug day den.

Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq are no different from their wild cousins when it comes to bed making—they just have different materials. They love digging into the mulch or sand, Kalluk, especially, likes to sleep in his plastic kiddie pools. It is so fun to watch him organizing the pools so he can fit his entire 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) into them! Tatqiq really likes the palm fronds and arranges them so they cradle her or she can hug them between her paws. Chinook’s favorite bedding is pine needles keepers rake up from the pines around Polar Bear Plunge. If pine needles aren’t available, she is a master with combining Bermuda hay and burlap bags for the most comfortable, cozy bed! One bed trait all three bears share is making a pillow. The pillow may be a log, a raised area of the exhibit, a cardboard box, or a shmooshed carrot bucket. You may see this on Polar Cam.

Do our polar bears sleep all night? Keepers suspect they do for the most part, although there is often evidence of carrot munching, playing, and exploring. Sometimes it is obvious there was activity overnight. Recently, new sod was put into the polar bear yard, and for two nights it was given the chance to take hold, with either Chinook or Tatqiq having access to the yard. On the third night, Kalluk shared it with Chinook. Keepers came in the next morning to find most of the sod in the yard had been tossed into the pool and torn into small pieces. Chinook was brilliantly clean, while a certain handsome boy, famous for his love of head wear, had mud and grass smears all over his head. Hmmmm, who played with the sod?

Do polar bears dream? Keepers get the awesome chance to be close to sleeping polar bears. Sometimes the bears’ lips or paws move, so it seems possible they are dreaming. They are certainly intelligent beings who show they are also creative in their play and approach to problem solving, so why not dream? We may never really know. There is so much still to learn about polar bears, and we continue to learn more each day with our fabulous trio.

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. We all must find ways to protect the fragile habitat of the planet we all share. After all, could you even dream of a world without polar bears?

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bear Mid-Day.

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Polar Bear Mid-Day

Kalluk digs in during a snow day last February.

Kalluk digs in during a snow day last February.

Polar bears in the Arctic are tasting seal for the first time this season! Moms with new cubs, now five months old, are feasting on ringed seal pups. These pups are Mother Nature’s way of keeping the top predator in the Arctic well fed, especially polar bear families. Fifty percent of a ringed seal pup’s body weight is fat, a great boost to a mom that is providing meat and nursing growing cubs! After a good meal, mom will lie down and get some much-needed rest, and the cubs will curl up, entwined with her body.

At mid-day at the San Diego Zoo, the sound of a whistle means it’s time for the bears to come back inside. The bears know the whistle and also come when their names are called; yes, each bear knows his or her name! Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq raise their heads from napping and move toward the open bedroom door. The bears are fed on a variable schedule: they may go off exhibit two or three times for another feeding, extra enrichment, or training sessions. This may happen anywhere from five minutes to several hours after their morning debut (see Polar Bear Morning). When the bears go back out, they may find new enrichment items, or keepers may toss treats (lettuce, melon, toys, etc.) to them from the overlook into the exhibit. This often spurs the bears to go swimming, and new toys really get them excited: they often pass up the food treat for the new toy!

The Arctic may have very warm days, even over 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6 degrees Celsius). Polar bears dig down into the permafrost to stay cool or lie in the shallow cold water of the coast in hopes of not overheating. Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq do the same, except in the Polar Bear Plunge pool, of course! Chinook is the pro at sleeping with her head on the floating log and her legs floating out behind. Tatqiq prefers to sleep under the shade of the rock shelter. Kalluk usually cools off sitting on one of the rocks by the glass viewing area. We hose down the sand-bed areas every morning; this allows the bears to dig down into the damp, cool sand, just like wild bears digging into the cooling permafrost.

As often as keepers can, a presentation is done at the interactive wall by the beach area of the main exhibit. Typically these happen in the early afternoon. The bears enjoy this time so much that they often watch as the keepers head out and meet them there. The bears get to choose who does the “wall,” and sometimes both will participate. It is a great opportunity for guests to see, hear, and smell the bears. As keepers, we get to talk about how special our bears are, and guests get to experience being a few feet from a gorgeous, intelligent, powerful polar bear. What a thrill to have a bear look you in the eye only feet away! It’s a powerful connection. Guests walk away with knowledge of our three polar bears and perhaps feel connected to their wild cousins. They are also armed with knowing what we all need to do to help lower our greenhouse gases and protect the loss of more Arctic habitat.

At the sound of the whistle again, Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq stop napping, soaking, swimming, or playing to come back into the building for the final time of the day. Since the morning, the keepers have been preparing bedding, overnight treats, and diets for the next day, and filling out the paperwork necessary to communicate to Zoo animal care staff how the bears are doing that day. Keepers have also discussed which bears will be in the main exhibit overnight and who will be in the polar bear yard, all with access to their indoor bedrooms, giving them the choice to sleep inside or outside. Kalluk usually prefers to sleep inside; both girls like to sleep outside. As Chinook approaches the time when she could give birth, she generally switches to sleeping inside. Once every bear has had dinner, each is given access to the assigned overnight areas. For the bears who go out to the main exhibit, they may have one more interaction with their keepers.

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 Night…

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

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Polar Bear Morning

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.

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Polar Bears: Back to Normal

Tatqiq sniffs the air after a good roll in the mulch this morning.

Tatqiq sniffs the air after a good roll in the mulch this morning.

It’s been a whirlwind few months for all of us at the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge! It began on January 2 and is only just now settling into what we all refer to as normal! On January 2, we re-introduced Chinook to Kalluk and Tatqiq. It became very apparent in the previous week that Chinook was very interested in being with Kalluk. The three fabulous bears took up together as though they had not been apart for the months we were waiting to see if Chinook would give birth. All of us who work with our bears thought now we just wait for breeding season to start. The wait was NOT long!

On January 4, we came in to find it had begun and Kalluk and Chinook were inseparable. After a week of togetherness, it was all over for Chinook, but that was when Kalluk’s breeding drive took off. During the months that followed, we spent lots of time preparing foods that our boy would find appetizing to help keep any weight on him while nature takes over and he loses his appetite and seems to endlessly search for other mates. We also try different management techniques to see if any help to ease the road for Kalluk.

In the wild, male polar bears also go off their food in an effort to find receptive females. They, too, can lose an enormous amount of weight during this time, but adult males can make it up after breeding as they hunt yearlong on the ice and don’t have the need to fatten up to survive months in the den producing milk for cubs! However, with the summer ice beginning to disappear earlier, and knowing that males can be in breeding mode until June, it is worrisome to know what effects this could have on our wild male populations.

Polar bear breeding season can last into June, so although it is still possible that Chinook and Kalluk could breed again, Chinook’s behavior indicates that it is not likely. Kalluk is also showing fewer behaviors to indicate this as well. What does all this mean? We don’t have the exact answers, but it is likely that when the breeding occurred in January, Chinook ovulated, and if the egg was fertilized, she would not have the biological need to breed again. If this were in the wild, she would have begun hunting and storing as much body fat as possible to rear her cubs. It is interesting that so far this year she has been gaining weight more so than any year previously at this time.

The actual weight of polar bear cubs would not have a significant impact on their mother’s weight. Cubs are, after all, less than 2 pounds (1 kilogram) at birth. But we are optimistic that Chinook’s weight gain is an indicator that her body is holding on to every calorie she would need in the future for cub rearing.

Kalluk and Tatqiq have renewed their bond and can now be seen wrestling and playing together. Chinook is spending her days relaxing, eating carrots, and taking those beautiful, long soaks in the pool. She has quite a “full” figure these days; actually, she is gorgeous! So the warm San Diego summer will have her lounging and soaking most of the time. She will, of course, be given the option of staying in the air-conditioned bedrooms so you may not see her as much as in previous summers.

We know the question is already there: is she or isn’t she? We don’t know.  We will continue to work on research to give us better answers, continue to monitor Chinook’s behavior to provide for our girl exactly what she needs, and keep all fingers and toes crossed. We’re all getting pretty good at that!

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

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Polar Bears: Hormones

Kalluk enjoyed snow day earlier this month.

Kalluk enjoyed snow day earlier this month.

Many Polar Cam viewers have expressed concern about our male polar bear, Kalluk, and his repetitive or restless behaviors. It is hard to see him so driven by his hormones at breeding time if you don’t see his full day. He does eat and rest, but not for the long periods of time as he does when his hormones are not driving him. He is not suffering but just supremely distracted!

The reason we suspect his focus is at the one end of the exhibit is due to the stimulation he may receive there. There is certainly more visual activity with buses and guests stopping to look at him, and the breeze comes right through there, carrying great scent stimuli. Research has shown that there are chemical similarities between many industrial aromas and reproductive hormones. It may well be that Kalluk is constantly testing the breeze in case there is a receptive female polar bear about to come join him. No one really knows how far a polar bear can smell, but no one doubts that their sense of smell is more than anything we could compare.

We know from past testing of his testosterone levels that Kalluk experiences exceptionally high levels for a male polar bear. A recent study indicates that male polar bears’ highest testosterone levels occur from the age of 12 to 18. Kalluk just turned 12, so we may have a tough time for the next few years. We did witness one day of breeding last month on the day after Chinook rejoined Kalluk and Tatqiq; she had been by herself on a pregnancy watch for a few weeks. Their reunion seemed to be more about the excitement of getting together again instead of actual estrus. We fully expect to see another breeding period that lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Once Chinook’s hormones indicate that she is ready for breeding, and her behavior indicates she is ready, Kalluk’s attention will turn to only her. Then, as the breeding season wanes, we will get our fun-loving boy back. Polar bear breeding season can last from January to June! Until then, we have increased the amount of fat in his diet, increasing the calories he has to use. We strategically give him enrichment, especially scents, and strategically make beds for him that are in his interest zone.

Rest assured that we are monitoring him closely and responding to whatever he shows might alleviate some of his frustration. Keep watching Chinook as well; she also gives indicators, although much more subtle, of her breeding season!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Exam for Tatqiq.

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Polar Bears: Exam for Tatqiq

Tatqiq enjoys snow day earlier this month.

Tatqiq enjoys snow day earlier this month.

Once a year, our polar bear Tatqiq gets an exam. The main purpose is to implant her birth control but also to get a good look at her teeth, body condition, and any other routine items that are helpful in keeping her healthy. February 20 was her exam day.


If you have ever taken your pet to the veterinary office for a procedure that requires anesthesia, you know that fasting is required. In preparation for this, Tatqiq did not have any food overnight and instead was given all food during the day so by evening she had her full amount. First thing in the morning we remove water, so that in the event she feels nauseous, she won’t have anything that she might aspirate—all standard procedures. The hard part for keepers is getting her to be all right with no breakfast! Whether she knew it was for her own good or not, she was a complete angel while Kalluk and Chinook had breakfast, and we were able to go about the morning not feeling completely guilty.

Once the veterinary staff arrived, Tatqiq was sedated by a dart injection. We stay with her throughout, reassuring her (and maybe ourselves, too). Once the anesthetic begins to take effect, Tatqiq comes over to where we are and lays down. It is all very nice and peaceful and without any anxiety for her. The entire procedure lasted just over an hour and a half. During that time her teeth were found to be in great shape, radiographs also confirmed that, blood was taken for routine analysis, joints were moved, our nutritionists felt all over her body to be sure she was in top body condition—not too thin, not too fat, but just right! And, of course, the tiny birth control device was implanted under her skin just between the shoulders.

We are always asked if we touch the polar bears. While Tatqiq was sedated, we sat with her and talked with her and, yes, gently touched her to give any comfort she might feel while the exam went on. Because she is beginning her annual molt, we could feel some of the new growth of fur; it was so soft. But the most beautiful sight was of the new individual pieces of fur glistening like diamonds in between the fur that she will eventually shed. We were truly in awe of how gorgeous each individual hair was.

We stayed with Tatqiq until she was awake enough to have a nice full dinner and then cuddle up in the giant hay bed we had prepared for her. Then our day ended, and she spent the night sleeping. First thing Thursday morning our girl greeted us and patiently waited while her breakfast was prepared and, yes, served first! She joined her brother Kalluk on exhibit first with a very nice neck-biting greeting, and then Chinook came over for the same.

For those who question if Chinook likes Tatqiq, here’s something to ponder: Chinook prefers to sleep outside on the beach or in the mulch if the weather is dry and only comes inside if it is raining. Last night, Chinook chose to sleep inside in the room across the hall from where Tatqiq was and was the first to check on her when we turned the lights on this morning. We‘d like to think she was concerned about her friend. What do you think?

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Chinook and Her Beauty Mark.

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Polar Bears: Chinook and Her Beauty Mark

Chinook and her "beauty mark."

Chinook and her “beauty mark.”

Our girl Chinook had an exam today. The good news is she is a very healthy lady! But we did take the opportunity to do a little cosmetic work. Our Veterinary Services Team removed her “beauty mark.” The concern was that it had grown a bit and had started to work into the lower eyelid; not a problem now, but in the future it would be more difficult to remove. She will be back joining Kalluk and Tatqiq Friday morning.

For now, you will be able to tell Chinook from Tatqiq because of the patch just below her left eye, but soon it will fill in with fur!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Well, Chinook?

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Polar Bears: Well, Chinook?

Is she or isn’t she?

*Is she or isn’t she? We still don’t know for sure. Here’s what we do know: Chinook’s fecal hormone profile as of mid-November indicated that pregnancy was still a possibility but birth most likely would be no sooner than January. We have been doing weekly ultrasound exams since October, and the images neither confirm nor deny pregnancy. Polar bears are delayed implanters, so we don’t usually see the uterus unless there is something happening. As of the ultrasound exam this week, our veterinarians are still able to see her uterus. With both these indicators, we are definitely not throwing in the towel.

Chinook’s behavior, though, is picking up. She is playing every day on exhibit and in her back pool. Chinook is also soliciting lots of play time with her keepers. She does, however, go to sleep in her massive bed by noon, again both good and not-so-good signs for pregnancy. The good part: whatever the outcome, our girl is having a very comfortable time keeping us all on pins and needles!

*UPDATE: Chinook has very effectively communicated as of January 1, 2013 that she is NOT pregnant and please very much would like to go play with Tatqiq and that very handsome Kalluk. Today’s ultrasound session also convinced us that we are no longer on pins and needles. So tomorrow all three will be re-united. So uncross those fingers and toes and let them rest until next year!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: A Wild Study.

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Polar Bears: A Wild Study

A polar bear mother with her yearling cubs strolls in the wilds of Manitoba, Canada.

It’s hard for me to believe that this year is my 12th in Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, for polar bear season. Because of the unique water currents, geography, and ice formation, polar bears pass through this northern town every year on their way to hunting ringed seals after a few months of fasting when Hudson Bay is ice-free. The majority of time, visitors spend the days observing polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area beginning 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) from town. But today we are moving out to Wapusk National Park and Cape Churchill, another 15.5 miles away. Tundra Buggy Adventures is granted permits exclusively by Parks Canada to travel into this remote tundra habitat.

This travel requires hitching up all the Tundra Buggy lodge trailers to individual buggies and hauling them through tidal flats, snow drifts, and around large boulders. It’s a slow process, but along the way great views of the tundra and polar bear habitat can be seen. We are now just two hours into the drive and have already seen a fabulous gyrfalcon, fox prints, and polar bears: several subadult bears, one particularly large male, and a mom with two yearling cubs. I was extremely happy to see yearling cubs, as over the past three years I had not seen any older cubs, just cubs of the year, aka COY. Not seeing older cubs was unusual and perhaps indicates that cubs are not surviving past their first year.

Tundra buggies make their way to Wapusk National Park.

This year we are also seeing the ice forming a bit earlier than it has in the last few years. We have seen many bears already head out to begin hunting. Over the past decade, this would be a normal occurrence, but in the last few years the ice has not been formed enough for bears to get out and hunt for the winter until December. It is also good news, since most of the polar bears in Hudson Bay lost their hunting ice in July. Scientists studying this population estimate that the ice is disappearing a full three weeks earlier than normal for this region. The aerial survey from last year to evaluate the population of the Western Hudson Bay resulted in an estimated 1,000 polar bears, consistent with surveys from a few years ago. Unfortunately, average litter sizes were the lowest recorded, and yearlings and COY were proportionately fewer. This is possibly due to not only the earlier ice loss but also the later ice formation giving females less time to hunt and to provide for offspring.

Our destination tonight will be Cape Churchill, which has a great history of polar bear observation for both scientist and bear enthusiast. Typically this is where the biggest males stay, biding their time sparring while waiting for the ice. This area, too, is where, once the males have moved on, moms with cubs make their last walk to the coast and out to the ice. The opportunities to study polar bears and their behavior are hard to match anywhere else in the world.

We should reach the Cape in another eight hours. It will have been a very long day of travel. The reward will be tomorrow when we wake up in perhaps one of the most inspiring lands of ice and bears. I think how unbelievably blessed I have been for 12 seasons to be able to be a part of this. I can’t bear to think that this may all be disappearing quickly. The colleagues I travel with inspire me with knowledge that we can make a difference, the guests sharing this adventure inspire me with knowing there are some really great folks who are willing to make changes in their lives now to save this area by lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, and most importantly, I am inspired by the incredible polar bears that survive and thrive in this ice world.

I am so happy to see a mom and her two yearling cubs. It is their future that we hold in our hands, as well as the future of our own children, so that they, too, may be blessed to witness this amazing animal in this inspiring world of ice.

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