polar bear keeper


Polar Bears: What December Brings

A young male polar bear is trapped in ice slush.

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.

The bear at rest after escaping the slush.

I watched with great awe as a young male polar bear learned the hard way that the fast-moving tide with newly formed slush ice can be a life-or-death moment. This moment lasted over two hours for him. At great distance we saw this bear struggling to swim back in to safety. The combination of current and heavy ice slush proved to be an admirable preventer. At times his head disappeared under the surface as he rested. Just as I thought the worst, his head would come up again, and he would make a supreme effort to pick his massive paw, covered in ice, out of the water and push himself forward.

The exhausted bear

Eventually, he made it to ice he could crawl across. At well over two hours of enormous effort he reached solid ice. He lay still for a few minutes and then joyously began to dry off, giving an amazingly animated show of rubbing and rolling. Off he then went to cruise the coastline, still in the hunt for food and survival. He seemed to be teaching us that this is now everyday life for our ice bears when the ice is not forming as it should. How many are not making it back to solid footing? This young male polar bear’s effort to survive makes our effort to conserve seem so minimal.

After resting, he dries off in the snow.

The forecast for the Hudson Bay: a thin ledge of ice should be formed by mid- December.

What does December bring for our polar bears in San Diego? Unfortunately, it does not look like the pitter patter of tiny paws will be filling our ears. Although we were all so hopeful, it looks like we’ll be repeating this process next year. Our girl Chinook has become very active and is spending lots of time playing in back and looking longingly over at her two buddies Kalluk and Tatqiq. We did another ultrasound exam this week and found a very healthy girl but no sign of cubs. So we are now looking to reintroduce our fabulous trio very soon. Putting such large bears together does not come without risk. The introductions and the time they spend together will be determined by their behavior. But if the interactions they have been having in the back area are any indicator, our three will be very happy to have each other to cavort with. We have some fun new balls for play, and we will continue to rotate the three in combinations throughout the day.

Of course, Kalluk and Tatqiq will have to now share their mulch piles with Chinook—please excuse the dirt-filled water! (Thanks, Water Quality Team for keeping the filtration running so well!) Keep watching Polar Cam to stay up to date on how it’s going. Just think, breeding season is just around the corner. Here we go again!

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

Note: Be sure to click on each image to enlarge it!

Join JoAnne on the next San Diego Zoo WorldWild Tour to Churchill this fall!


Motherhood: What if…

What if San Diego Zoo polar bear Chinook gives birth to a beautiful healthy cub? What if the cub is sick or hurt just after it is born? What if Chinook doesn’t know what to do with her tiny squawking bundle? What if she can’t produce enough milk? What if the confusion of first-time motherhood is too much for Chinook to handle? How could we help? What should we do? What would we do?

Why would we even entertain such horrible thoughts? What’s with all the doom and gloom?

Realistically, these are all questions zoo keepers, animal care managers, and veterinarians must ask when a zoo animal with no maternal experience is pregnant. Although we always have high hopes that the natural maternal instinct will kick in as soon as the baby is born, we have to prepare for all scenarios. Discussions among animal care personnel eventually lead to a “birth management plan.” The plan may begin with prenatal care, housing changes, camera installation, and den provisions. Somewhere in the middle of the plan are the answers to most of those “what ifs.” We have to decide how long we will leave the new mother undisturbed. We then have to consider how we can effectively assess the condition of the baby if there is fear that the baby is not being properly nurtured. We have to plan for the extreme case of removing the baby for veterinary treatment and hand-rearing. The Zoo’s Nutrition Department and nursery staffs need to develop a hand-rearing protocol and, most importantly, come up with a proper formula replacement. We also have to think about strategies for offering supplemental feedings if the baby’s growth rate on Mom’s milk isn’t up to par.

A tiny Kalluk or Tatqiq is feed formula while in quarantine at the Zoo in 2001.

The hand-rearing portion of the plan is where I come in. I am a member of the five-person Nursery Team at the Zoo. I was one of the keepers that hand-mixed (gallons and gallons of) milk formula for the tumbling youngsters Kalluk and Tatqiq when San Diego welcomed them into our Zoo family nine years ago. It really doesn’t seem that long ago, and it’s hard to believe that Kalluk may be a dad some day! Sorry, I digress…

Anyway, in addition to getting our hand-rearing protocol in order, two members of our nursery staff were able to participate in more than just the standard preparation. Beginning last April, Joanne Mills and I were given the opportunity to be secondary polar bear keepers. How cool is that? It so happened that the nursery workload was light while the polar bear keepers were extra busy. We were quickly shown the ins and outs of exhibit cleaning, bear feeding, etc. (Oh, I could say so much about the opposite sides of the feeding spectrum: polar bears versus nursery babies. I couldn’t believe how much meat was served to polar bears each day!)

It took a whole five minutes to fall in love with the magnificent threesome. I don’t know why it took that long. We soon realized there was a huge advantage to having nursery keepers working with the polar bears at this time of year. If any of the less-than-perfect birth scenarios occurred, Chinook would already be familiar and calm with nursery keepers. If we had to step in to offer any postnatal assistance, we would already have her trust.

Now, unfortunately, it seems as if our window of possible pregnancy is closing. We’ve been so disappointed that nothing has shown up on the ultrasounds. Our high hopes have diminished. If we aren’t lucky enough to see Chinook as a mother this year, we’ll just transfer our high hopes to next year. At least we’ve gone through all the thought processes and planning stages, and we’ll definitely be ready for whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way.

Becky Kier is a senior nursery keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Polar Bear Hopes

High hopes for Chinook!

Chinook gave birth to two beautiful, fuzzy white cubs. Beep, beep, beep. . .I turned the alarm clock off. Yes, it was a dream, right? Or maybe a premonition? It seemed so real! As soon as I arrived at the polar bear building at the San Diego Zoo, Chinook came out of her bed to say good morning, so I asked her, “Are you really going to have two?” She simply winked at me; if she does know, she’s keeping us all in suspense. Every week during her ultrasound exams we are so hopeful of finding just a little hint of what may be to come. We realize what an incredible task this is to find something so small in such a large belly!

Chinook’s behavior is still very consistent with a pregnant polar bear. A few weeks ago we stopped letting her out on exhibit with Kalluk and Tatqiq, since she seemed to be less tolerant of their presence. This week we stopped having Chinook on exhibit at all or letting Kalluk and Tatqiq into Chinook’s side of the bedroom area and yard. We will continue this for the next few months until we know for sure if our Chinook will be joined by one or two little ones. We are now in the expected due date range if Chinook is pregnant: October 9 to December 15. Believe me, we are all so hopeful and excited!

Our other two polar bears, Kalluk and Tatqiq, are having a great time being full-time ambassadors. With autumn arriving, it seems they spend more time in the pool. Every day the brother-and-sister pair are enjoying roughhousing together. They are great playmates and always play to each other’s level, never getting too rough. It is so nice to see that their bond has stayed so strong.

This week they welcomed keeper Hali O’Connor back from her great adventure up north at Keeper Leadership Camp, sponsored by Polar Bears International, in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. (see Hali’s most recent post, More Arctic Ambassador Adventures) and met this year’s student ambassador, Rachel. She will be up in Churchill this week learning all about polar bears and what we need to do to help slow the process of our warming planet, and, in turn, prevent the complete loss of polar bear habitat. (See Rachel’s post, Countdown to the Arctic.)

Being an Arctic ambassador sometimes seems a daunting task: how to inspire behavior change when it often feels so doom and gloom? It is a global issue and must start with individuals. We’ve faced other environmental problems and won. Remember the hole in the ozone? As individuals, we worked to find the cause, develop solutions, and act as a global community. The unprecedented international action to the hole in the ozone, which was first seen 25 years ago, has paid off. Scientists are now predicting a rebound and that by 2080 the global ozone will return to 1950s’ levels. We now all need to return to action to have the same impact to slow, stop, and reverse the rate of our planet’s warming. After all, we want Chinook’s cubs to know we are doing everything we can to save the Arctic for their wild cousins so they, too, will be Arctic Ambassadors.

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


Polar Bears: A Quiet Fall?

Only Chinook knows for sure...

Changes have begun at the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge. You may have noticed that Chinook has spent the last few weeks with Kalluk and Tatqiq for less periods of time. We have been watching her behavior and started to decrease her time with them as she began to show no interest in interacting with them and even began to push them away.

Female polar bears require great quiet, security, and seclusion when they den. Interestingly, it was Kalluk whom Chinook first began to let know he was not welcome too close. For the next few weeks, Chinook will most likely be out in our large exhibit only in the mornings for a few hours, and then she will spend the rest of her day in the off-exhibit management yard we call Polar Bear Park and the adjoining bedrooms while Kalluk and Tatqiq take residence for the rest of the day in the exhibit.

Chinook’s change in behavior is normal for a female polar bear that is pregnant. Her den is installed, and the bedrooms that will act as outer chambers to her den are cozy and quiet. Yes, we have the cameras installed so when the time is right we will be able to share any greatly hoped-for additions to our polar bear family with anyone viewing Polar Cam. Is Chinook pregnant? When will she give birth? We don’t have the exact answers to these questions, but we sure are hoping for good news this fall!

Here’s what we do know: in March of this year, Kalluk and Chinook engaged in what appeared to be very successful breeding behavior. Polar bear gestation is 195 to 265 days. Counting it out, we would expect to see cubs born between October 9 and December 15. The majority of polar bears cubs in the U.S. have been born in late November, but the earliest was October 11. You can see Chinook’s timeline is well within normal timing!

We have also been participating in a fecal hormone study done by the Cincinnati Zoo’s CREW (Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife). The study is working to develop a test to be able to confirm pregnancy in polar bears and also be able to differentiate between actual pregnancy and false pregnancy. If the current numbers and protocols are correct, then Chinook’s hormones indicate that yes indeed she is pregnant! But at this point this is not a perfect measurement, so again we have a level of uncertainty that only seeing cubs will remove.

Luckily, Chinook is the only polar bear in the world currently that is trained for ultrasound procedures! We have regularly been doing these exams every week. We have yet to find anything but all the normal abdominal parts. It is very much like the first years with our giant pandas. . .so much to learn! How do you find a fetus the size of a peanut in a 200-plus-pound panda? Well, you can imagine the challenge when the bear is a 600-plus-pound polar bear! Suffice it to say that even if we don’t confirm pregnancy with ultrasound, it doesn’t mean Chinook is not pregnant. But how exciting it will be if we can confirm and have the first-ever images of a polar bear cub before birth!

Soon we expect Chinook will want only to be in the park and bedroom/den area. Kalluk and Tatqiq will spend their time in the exhibit keeping up their wonderful work as ambassadors. And I suspect we’ll all be crossing our fingers just a little bit harder! Patience . . . patience . . . patience. . .shhhhhh, it will be a quiet fall!

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

Note: JoAnne has provided some answers to questions posed in her previous post


Polar Bears: Oh, Miss Chinook!

ChinookThe summer is just flying by—it’s hard to believe we are already into August! As promised, with the beginning of August we are once again looking into ultrasound exams with Chinook. Can it already be nine months since our last ultrasound? Last Friday we had an appointment with our veterinary staff to begin getting our beautiful bear back into the swing of things and, to be honest, get all of Chinook’s caretakers back into the routine as well.

The process of performing an ultrasound with a polar bear is not quite as straight forward as you would think. No wonder Chinook is the only polar bear in the universe that does ultrasound without anesthesia. First, we gather the supplies: Where did the ultrasound probe protection sleeve go? Ah yes, it was borrowed for a camel ultrasound a few months back. The ultrasound machine (a high-tech, portable Aloka) fit perfectly, protected under the counter in the polar bear kitchen for the last few months. And, of course, the all-important gel! Plus squirt bottles to mix the gel with water to help view through Chinook’s lush belly fur. Lastly, the most important item—creamy peanut butter! This is the favored treat made into liquid that our Chinook loves to slurp while her belly is rubbed during ultrasounds.

Friday afternoon arrived and all was ready, with Chinook sitting regally in her training crate watching all the set up. She had freedom to move anywhere else but seemed content to watch. All was finally in place for the first session in nine months. We were prepared that perhaps it might take a bit to refresh Chinook’s memory and regain a bit of her enthusiasm for the behavior. Boy, were we WRONG! At our first ask of her to turn around and lean into a roll-over, she gave a look that said “What took so long?” and immediately rolled over perfectly. Not even a second glance as the watery gel was applied and then followed by the ultrasound probe. Chinook simply rested, enjoying her grapes, fish, and the all-important creamy-peanut-butter “soup.” Oh, Miss Chinook, you are truly an incredible bear! What an ambassador for your wild counterparts, and what a thrill it is to work with you.

So what did we see with the ultrasound exam? As our veterinarian said, “All the right abdominal stuff.” We absolutely don’t expect to see anything this early. The ability to ultrasound Chinook for possible pregnancy is a path to get many polar bear reproduction questions answered. We know so little about the implantation process and fetal growth. This information will add to what we need to know to protect critical denning habitat for polar bears in the wild. We will be able to better know the critical times to keep these areas safe.

The news coming from the Arctic is not great these days. In June, we saw the fastest loss of ice ever measured. July brought the second-lowest ice extent and the beginning of the old ice melt. It is the old, multi-year ice that is so important to keeping the Arctic cold and our entire planet cool. Today, San Diego announced what an impact our community has had on improving our air quality. What a great testimony to what we can all do to help our environment! We must all continue to keep working as individuals, groups, communities, nations, and the world to keep our planet safe.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: “Who’s Who”.


Polar Bears: Who is Who?


Having a tough time telling “who’s who” on the camera? Here are a few helpful identifiers:

First, now that breeding season is over, if you see two bears together most likely it is our siblings Kalluk and Tatqiq. They truly enjoy each other for playing and often times sleep in close proximity, especially on our beach! Chinook, it seems, is not joining the two this year for the summer frolic season. Instead, she is content with watching them and resting by a favorite pile of carrots. She also loves to sleep to the right side of the waterfall or out on the point.

We maintain a variable schedule of which bear is on exhibit when, but for the most part, Kalluk and Tatqiq are on exhibit more often in the evenings, and Chinook is in the bedrooms and polar bear park. This is intentional because she does seem to enjoy this area, and if she is pregnant, this will be where she will live for up to six months and introduce her cubs to the great world of grass, dirt, and swimming!

Individually, Chinook is the most round of our three. Her arms look very solid, as does every part of her. When polar bears put on weight, it first goes on their belly, then their bum, then distributes over the rest of their body. The bear you see with thick arms, neck and legs, rounder profile, and in the close-up has a beauty mark under her left eye, is Chinook! Again, her weight gain is intentional in preparation that she will be denning up this fall. We want to be sure she has plenty of energy to support any time she might spend fasting during the denning period. Female polar bears in the Arctic regularly go without food for four months while in their dens; due to the loss of sea ice, this time in now increasing to as much as nine months. This is why we are seeing smaller litters and an increase in the mortality of cubs in the wild.

Kalluk and Tatqiq are almost mirror images of each other except, of course, that Kalluk is twice the size of Tatqiq! They both have more slender appearances and are very tall looking. Actually, we suspect Kalluk may well be the tallest male polar bear in any zoo. We measured him standing up, and he is over 10 feet (3 meters) tall! Kalluk is the “basketball player”; he throws everything and has definitely learned where he can throw toys and have them come back to him. Tatqiq tends to wrestle with toys. When you see two bears wrestling, Tatqiq stands fully up but Kalluk only half way; this is so he and Tatqiq are the same height. Also, don’t worry if you see them dragging each other around by their head or ears; they’ve done this game since they were six-month-old cubs!

As we all enjoy our summer weather, I hope we are all still thinking about conserving energy. Have you raised the temperature on your thermostat for less air conditioner use? Evening walks are a great, cool time to get to know your neighborhood and turn off the computer and TV! We are now seeing the lowest recorded ice amount in the Arctic for the month of June. The rate of melting sea ice is at a historic record. Let’s do a bit more to slow this rate of warming. Check out our Polar Bear Plunge Web site for more ideas!

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


Polar Bears: A New Look

Kalluk shakes off.

Why no Polar Cam? Have you looked recently? The Polar Cam has been replaced by a new HD camera system, and it looks so much better! And in keeping with our message of reducing our waste, the old camera will be reused in our Polar Bear Park (the new management yard behind the main polar bear exhibit)! We have been able to raise enough funds to add some cameras and the ability to pan-tilt-zoom! This will help us see where our bears are from inside the polar bear building and what antics our trio is up to. In addition—YES!—we will be installing an Internet hookup so that in the event Chinook has cubs, we will be able to show her den live on our Web site! With the installation of the cameras in the park, we will also be able to watch the bears in the pool. We are hoping to have all the work done by the beginning of July. We want to have lots of practice with it by the fall!

And for those of you wondering about weather conditions in San Diego, it would appear we are in for a “snow storm” on Saturday, June 5, in celebration of World Oceans Day! Luckily for beach goers, it will be an isolated storm directly in the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge. We are expecting the largest snowfall ever, and a few creative individuals will be building ice people; the bears will then get the choice of which is the best. So watch to see which one they knock over first! Note: Video of this fun activity is now posted!

Our arctic foxes Kaniq and Isiq have made themselves quite comfortable in their new digs (see New Neighbors for Polar Bears): every day we find a brand-new hole! It is so much fun to see them digging and rolling in the soil. They don’t seem to have much appreciation for landscape and have greatly enjoyed playing tug-of-war with the long grass and flowering plants in their area. Isiq also loves to race around with pieces of sod, tossing and jumping as though she is making a great lemming kill. When you visit, please take some time with these two. Morning is usually the best time.

The reindeer herd is now officially grown. Three yearling females have joined our other lady. Polar bear Kalluk is absolutely entranced by them. I’m not sure what he was trying to communicate when he brought his large beef femur bone over to show the reindeer at the fence line!

For those of you trying to tell the difference between Tatqiq and Chinook, it is quite easy these days: Chinook is oh so very pudgy! This is usually a time when she would be losing weight, and she is not. Not sure what this means, but she has not become her usual playful self after breeding season and instead seems to be a bit drifty and very mellow.

But if action is what you’re looking for, check out our brother-sister team! Kalluk and Tatqiq have rejoined to become quite the pair. As we get closer to summer, they are definitely swimming and playing together more, and Kalluk is back to his water-ball-dribbling and basketball-like antics!

With the fun days we have ahead, it’s difficult to hear of the latest report coming from the biologists in the Arctic. The ice has not been very good this year. The Western Hudson Bay area where I spend every fall reports the hardest news of all: it would appear that their population of polar bears is very close to the “tipping point.” This is a term used to define when a population decreases so greatly it has little chance of returning. It is estimated that a third of the Western Hudson population could be lost within a year’s time. The decline will be gradual until the threshold is passed, and then it will decline dramatically and very fast. In the 1980s, there were approximately 120 days during which the bears had a summer fast due to ice melt; this time it is increasing and it is estimated that when it reaches 180 days, 28 to 48 percent of the population will starve. This is very difficult to think about.

The disaster we watch every day in the Gulf is a good reminder that it is about our entire planet and how we use its resources. It is time to really act on common sense and what is good for our home by reducing our consumption and our waste. In the end, we are all impacted by it, whether it is happening off our coast, the equator, or at either pole.

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


Polar Bear Spring

Kalluk refocuses his energy.

Spring arrived at the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge a few days early this year. Chinook and Kalluk began breeding on March 17 and then abruptly stopped on March 24. Last year, the season lasted from February to June! Although it’s possible we could see more, we are not expecting it to be likely. Chinook’s behavior gives us no indicators like last year that she will cycle again, and even though Kalluk has shown some behavioral frustration, he has not shown any interest in Chinook for almost a month. So what could this mean?

First, we really don’t know exactly what happens in polar bear reproduction. We do know that breeding season happens in the spring, typically March through May. It is strongly suspected that female polar bears are spontaneous ovulators, meaning they will ovulate only when breeding occurs. It is also suspected that she will not cycle again if, in a breeding season, fertilization occurs. This has some evidence to the contrary, as we do know of some cubs in the wild that share different fathers!

For argument’s sake, let’s agree that for females their breeding season ends with a fertilized egg. That would mean that Chinook has a blastocyst or two floating around in her uterus waiting to implant! Remember: polar bears have delayed implantation, giving them a gestation of 195 to 265 days, so we’ll be anxiously waiting until sometime between October 1 and December 9 this year…unless we see a return in Chinook’s interest to Kalluk. Sigh! Yes, we do plan to do ultrasound checks on Chinook as we get closer to October, so perhaps we’ll get an earlier clue. We are so lucky to have the world’s only polar bear trained for ultrasound procedures! (Watch video of an ultrasound session with Chinook from 2009.)

Kalluk also is beginning to show less anxious pacing than we normally see during breeding season. Although afternoons seem to bring about some surges, he is beginning to play and eat like his true self. During breeding season, he is so distracted we do all we can to get a few pounds of food into him. Currently, he is consuming up to 50 pounds a day. Yes, he is on his way back!

Tatqiq has had an easier time this year as well. Last year, Chinook kept her sitting up by the waterfall every day. Even though we always gave Tatqiq a choice to stay in the bedroom area, she always wanted to go out. This year she definitely gained some self confidence and became our little savvy politician and was granted privilege to use the entire exhibit.

All three bears love their new “polar bear park” (see post Polar Bears: The Countdown). It used to be that the San Diego Zoo was famous for its green polar bears, due to algae growing in their hollow hair follicles. We’ve not seen that for many years now with our improved water. But now, with the long, lush grasses of the polar bear park, our beautiful white bears are experiencing green grass stains from rolling on the knolls and down the hills! Chinook had the most lovely green cheeks yesterday morning.

This week will also bring changes to the neighborhood: our long-awaited Arctic foxes will be moving in. Arctic foxes have a very strong aroma! It will be quite interesting to watch Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq as they check out their new neighbors, first by aroma and then by sight! I’m sure we’ll have photos up once the foxes settle in. Keep a look out!

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


Polar Bears: The Countdown


In just a few days, we reopen the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge at the San Diego Zoo. For the past week, the final touches have been added to all the new elements. Wait until you see the new polar bear statues. Polar bears are extremely difficult to get proportionally correct in art. The adult male statue is immense, and yes, true to real size when a male is over 12 years old and has been feasting well. The young bear reminds me so much of Kalluk when he was two years old. I think the most remarkable statue is the one of a 30-day-old cub as it would look in the den.

There are also great replicas of ring seals that you can actually get a photo with as you pop out of a seal hole. The ring seal has great, long whiskers that it uses like fingers to feel its way in dark water; our ring seals also have these! Only a few more days until everyone gets to enjoy these experiences!

The keepers have been busy with media interviews, final touches on the other animal exhibits, and, of course, taking care of our cool trio. We are still awaiting the arrival of our Arctic fox pair, but until then you will also get to see two other North American residents: our raccoon, Granite, and a beautiful great-horned owl, Shaman. We will also soon have a few more reindeer to add to our herd just behind the new management yard that we’ve nicknamed Polar Bear Park.

This past week, all of our bears have had the ability to go out into the Park with its great long, lush green grass. Tatqiq now regularly chooses to spend the night staring at the stars and smelling the spring grass. And yes, with spring comes breeding season. Kalluk and Chinook are definitely occupied with attempting to keep us all on pins and needles for the coming fall, as we get the constantly asked question, “Is she?”

Kalluk has become so intent this year that when Chinook positions herself so that he can’t be near her, we see him walk back and forth, always looking at her. You would think he would be exhausted! But no, he’s always ready when she is. And now this is where the real countdown begins. Polar bears have delayed implantation, and this creates a gestation of 195 to 265 days. Counting from the first actual breeding we observed, we will all be watching diligently from October 1 to December 9 of this year. And possibly longer, depending on how long breeding season continues. You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?

Come spend your time waiting with us, and explore all the new fun beginning at noon on March 26!

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


Polar Bears: Crash, Slurp, and Shadow

Kalluk, left, and Chinook

Could it be we are nearing the end of our fantastic remodel of the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge at the San Diego Zoo? Anyone who has remodeled their home knows the joys and dilemmas that improvement brings. Most of the work that impacted our bears was completed last fall with the building of our management yard and the experience wall.

The bears love the wall area, and with all the great rain we’ve had, the yard is thick with green grass. In fact, we’ve begun calling the yard Polar Bear Park! We did, however, want to do some remodeling in the exhibit: remove some of the deadwood to make viewing easier. We set about renting a huge crane to come and lift the wood out and move the huge root balls, but…

The project started when we brought all three bears in for the afternoon and night while we cut through all the metal thread that held everything together, cut the wood into smaller, more manageable pieces, and basically prepared all for fast work the next morning. Everything needed to be done by 9 a.m. so the crane would not block the road.

We were all in an hour early; we made sure the bears were all fed and happy with new beds or enrichment and then set up for the crane. The crane arrived early but, OH NO! The hydraulic line broke! The crane was out of commission. Now what? We can’t let the bears on exhibit—it was too dangerous with all the loose logs. In steps teamwork!

One of our animal care managers got a bobcat tractor while ropes, chains, pry bars, and determination were gathered. For the next two hours logs were pulled off and out with loud crashes and moved into better positions. The polar bears’ “living room” took on a whole new look. By 9 a.m. we had everything done and secure so our trio could come out and assess our work. We expected lots of curiosity from them, but they took a look, a sniff, and went off to their carrot piles! We will be doing a bit more work before the grand re-opening on March 26, including removing one more root ball and filling part of the center shelter area with sand for another sleeping area.

There is also a return of that wonderful “sllluuurrrrrrpppppp” sound every day from Kalluk. What does this mean? As we are beginning to understand, scent is an integral part of polar bear communication. Just as breeding season begins, Kalluk busies himself with smelling everywhere Chinook has stepped. He flattens his nose and mouth to the floor and slurp-inhales with all he’s got to assess where Chinook may be in her approach to breeding season. We now are seeing him less and less away from her as he has become her shadow. This year, he seems to be less anxious about it, perhaps after last year he has gained some maturity and confidence. In the past few days we have begun to see Chinook become more flirtatious with him, and she often adds a nice face rub to her greetings to him. She rarely goes anywhere now without her 1,000-pound shadow!

Tatqiq is beginning to be an outcast, but she also seems to have gained some confidence. She is not backing down from Chinook but instead stands in place and offers behaviors that neutralize Chinook’s advances. Every day we do offer all our bears the opportunity to show us what they need, and so far everyone still wants to be together. We are really happy that when it comes time to give someone a break, they get to spend it in the new Polar Bear Park!

When you come to visit after re-opening on March 26, you will be able to see through the exhibit and look on the hill and see our bears in their lush, green park.

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

Watch video of the new statues and interactive elements being moved into place at Polar Bear Plunge.