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.