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Spring Cleaning for Polar Bears

Tatqiq really enjoyed her snow day last year!

Tatqiq really enjoyed her snow day last year!

The San Diego Zoo’s polar bears will be off exhibit through today while we spruce up their exhibit a bit. Our goal is to provide a dynamic environment for the bears. It is quite the undertaking to move around all of those giant root balls and logs in the exhibit, as well as bring in new ones.

We brought in a crane to lift a 5,000-pound root ball from the elephant yard and place it in the polar exhibit. We hope to be able to do this at least two to three times a year to change up the exhibit for our bears. A wild polar bear’s environment is constantly changing due to the movement of the sea ice, and we feel it is important for our bears as well. We want them to have an exhibit and a home that isn’t always the same every time they leave the bedrooms. At this time you will also see a completely empty exhibit pool. All 150,000 gallons were drained so that we could go in to steam clean and pressure wash the entire surface of the pool. This is something we do once or twice a year.

In addition to moving around existing exhibit features and bringing in new ones, we will also be completely changing their exhibit on Saturday, May 17, by bringing in 18 tons of ice that will be run through a chipper to create snow for our bears. They will have a blast sliding down the hills, tunneling through the snow, and searching for things that we have buried. Generally the snow lasts for four to six days, but with the warm weather we are currently experiencing in San Diego, it could be gone in a day or two.

We hope you will be able to join us on Saturday, May 17, either in person or on Polar Cam so that you can witness all the fun before the snow is gone.

The Polar Bear Team

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Tatqiq: Odd Bear Out

Tatqiq is sure to enjoy Snow Day on Saturday, May 17, 2014!

Tatqiq is sure to enjoy Snow Day on Saturday, May 17, 2014!

Breeding season for polar bears is typically January through June. For Kalluk and Chinook in particular, it can happen anytime in that window. This year, the breeding window began on April 23, 2014, and usually lasts anywhere from 4 to 14 days. In 2013, it occurred in January and only lasted four days. This year, we are seven days into the process and breeding is still happening. However, the frequency has diminished quite a bit from the first few days.

Science still knows very little about polar bear reproduction. What we do know is that polar bears are both induced “ovulators” and delayed “implanters.”

Induced ovulation means that the females don’t have a normal estrus cycle like many mammals do. Male bears follow around females for days or weeks at a time, “wining and dining” them until they are receptive to breeding. Once ovulation is induced, then breeding will commence.

Delayed implantation is tricky because it makes gestation periods and birth dates difficult to predict. Unlike most mammals, after polar bears successfully copulate, they are not immediately pregnant. The fertilized egg remains in a suspended state until conditions are right, at which point the egg implants in the uterus and gestation can begin.

Until late May/early June, Tatqiq is, unfortunately, the odd bear out. Chinook’s hormones are raging, and she is less tolerant of Tatqiq during this time period. Kalluk generally does a good job of breaking up squabbles and moving his sister to a safer spot away from Chinook. If you have been watching the Polar Cam in recent weeks, you have probably noticed Tatqiq seeking refuge in the back corner near the waterfall. This is her safety zone and the spot where she feels she can best defend herself. It is our job as keepers to recognize these changes in behavior and adapt our management strategy. Because of the increased tension between the two females, you will usually only see Kalluk and Chinook on exhibit after 12:30 p.m. When the keepers pull the bears off exhibit for their final meal of the day, we give Tatqiq the polar bear penthouse where she has her own private pool, grass, trees, and air-conditioned bedrooms.

Once breeding season is over, you will again see Kalluk and Tatqiq playing together and there will be less aggression between the two females. Be sure to watch the action daily on Polar Cam!

The Polar Bear Team

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Spring in Air for Polar Bears

Kalluk digs a pile of snow.

Kalluk digs a pile of snow.

For those of us who live in San Diego, it nearly always feels like spring. (Sorry to those who are experiencing the polar vortex that hit a majority of the country recently!) Despite our consistent temperatures in San Diego, our polar bears follow seasonal changes similar to their wild counterparts in the Arctic.

We recently completed denning season, which normally occurs in the fall months (see Is Chinook Pregnant?). Now we are expecting to start a new cycle: breeding season! Those of you watching our Polar Cam may have noticed three bears on exhibit again. Chinook was reintroduced to Kalluk and Tatqiq after her months of requested seclusion. Chinook was showing some interesting behaviors associated with den making, but we eventually determined that she would not have cubs this time around.

The reintroduction went smoothly, and all the bears acted calmly. At first, Kalluk followed Chinook very closely while she walked around the exhibit. Then they both jumped into the pool for over an hour of play. Eventually, Kalluk was able to separate himself from Chinook, and all the bears rested in their favorite spots in Polar Bear Plunge.

Kalluk has been showing signs that he is getting ready for breeding season, such as an increased interest in sniffing Chinook’s footsteps and urine. However, Chinook is mainly acting coy and disinterested in Kalluk other than play (which certainly could be interpreted as slightly flirtatious behavior). Stay tuned as the saga continues…

Polar Bear Team

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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: Keeping Cool

Tatqiq knows how to stay cool!

The summer of 2012 will go down in history as one of the hottest on record. This brings lots of questions as to how polar bears at the San Diego Zoo can live in even the milder heat here. The first answer: our 130,000-gallon (490,000 liters) pool is chilled to under 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius). The shallow area allows the bears to lie down and even sleep if they choose. The mid-range allows for great soaking opportunities, and the 12-foot (3.6 meters) deep end allows for complete submersion and swimming. On most summer days, the breeze through the exhibit comes right off of San Diego Bay, so it is a cooling sea breeze. Throughout the exhibit there are numerous shaded areas with various bedding materials for the bears to sleep on. There is also a portable air conditioner we can direct up by the back area where they especially like to sleep. Inside the bedroom area, we also have air conditioning to take the heat out if absolutely necessary.

The real reason we can keep our polar bears comfortable, even on the hottest days, is by limiting the amount of fat they have on their body. For polar bears to survive the cold of the Arctic, they must build up at least 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) of fat over their body. They do this by eating seal blubber. A polar bear’s diet is 90 to 95 percent fat in the wild. They are so specialized for eating fat that they metabolize close to 90 percent of what they eat into body fat.

Here in San Diego, our nutrition staff has developed a diet that is 5- to 10-percent fat, so our polar bears get what they need for good health but not for bulking up for a cold winter. All of our bears would weigh much more than they do now if they had those fat layers. Kalluk, who is now over 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), would probably be closer to 1,600 pounds (725 kilograms)! When polar bears put fat on, it goes first on their belly to protect their core. Do you know that the body temperature of a polar bear is the same as ours? 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius)! The fat then layers over their bum and spreads out over their body.

Here’s one way to tell our three apart: When you look at them in profile, Kalluk and Tatqiq have a rounding of their bellies, but from the top of the hip to the tail it’s flat. Since we keep a bit more weight on Chinook (just in case she might be pregnant), her belly is nice and round, and her bum matches! And let’s not forget the CARROTS! Polar bears get little to no nutrition or calorie from vegetation. Our three can eat as much as they like and not put on a pound. Currently, they get 100 pounds (45 kilograms) a day between them that gets chewed, swallowed, slightly steamed in their bellies, and then eliminated. As keepers, we call that job security!

One problem with warm weather we seem to be challenged with this summer is the algae growth. Our water quality team constantly monitors the pool’s water for safety and cleanliness, but algae is airborne until it finds moisture. With the warm temperatures and direct sun, we’re experiencing quite a bloom. We add rock salt to help, but, unfortunately, some of it has imbedded into Tatqiq and Kalluk’s hollow hair shafts. It sneaks in through the small breaks in the shaft formed by grooming. This won’t harm them in any way, but it’s pretty embarrassing to have polar bears with a greenish hue! Our polar bears were once famous for being green when they lived in the smaller grotto exhibit decades ago. Since moving to this exhibit in 1996, we’ve not had any “greening,” until this year. So in the next few days we’ll be hosting “spa days” for a purpose—mineral salt-water soaks for all! Chinook and Tatqiq have always been pros at the soak; Kalluk will be challenging, since he thinks it’s only about dive bombing his sister and then slurping the saltwater off his giant paws. He’s got 13 inches (33 centimeters) on each foot to slurp from!

Summer brings great fun but also great danger with the dry heat. It is sad to hear of fires burning across our nation, so many losing their homes. It’s heartbreaking to lose so much; thank goodness for insurance. In the past few decades, polar bears have lost their ice homes in an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined. We now see forest fires burning in the Canadian tundra, the place with one of the highest densities of polar bear denning, the place where our beloved Chinook was born. What insurance do they have? They have us. We must be the guardians of our planet. We must continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially when it seems there is no hope. We still know it can be done. We must be the insurance to protect and insure that our children and grandchildren will still have the opportunity see the magnificent polar bear roaming our planet.

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

Watch the polar bears daily on Polar Cam.

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Science for Kids: Observing

Do you remember watching panda Su Lin when she was born in 2005?

We are coming up on bear pregnancy-watch season at the San Diego Zoo! Both our giant panda Bai Yun and polar bear Chinook have bred this year, and we are anxiously awaiting signs that they are pregnant. Our fingers are crossed, and all the tools we use to monitor their status are just about ready to go. Of course, we are all excited by the prospect of bear cubs in 2012, and I think it’s safe to say that we will all enjoy the opportunity we have to look into the bears’ dens and observe these ursid moms and their cubs.

An important aspect of our conservation research is the study of animal behavior, which tells us much about the biology of the animals we love and provides us with tools to assess how the animals are doing and what a “typical” animal should be doing during important phases of its life. The study of animal behavior can provide tremendous insights into a species’ biology and gives us tools we can use to help conserve them. While the behavioral data we collect fits into a scientifically devised systematic framework, there is much to be gained from simple observation as well.

I have tried to share the joy of observing animals with my kids in hopes that it will also provide a connection with science and what it means to be a scientist. Often, when we are out and about in our neighborhood or at the park near our home, we stop to watch what the various animals we see are doing. It is amazing how exciting and exotic a squirrel can seem if you really stop and take a few minutes to watch the way it interacts with its environment, the way it responds to your presence, and the various ways it vocalizes and flags its tail to send signals to other animals around it. One of our other favorite animal-watching activities is going on a “bug safari,” which simply entails going into our backyard and turning over a rock. This simple excursion provides a window into the fascinating world of potato bugs, ants, and worms. Very cool!

Panda Cam viewers watched Mei Sheng grow to roly-poly cuteness in the birthing den in 2003.

Another readily accessible way for most kids to experience being an animal behaviorist is to watch our own exotic bears through Panda Cam and Polar Cam. While giant panda and polar bear cubs are undeniably cute, they are also fascinating to watch, and the care and patience the mother bear shows while tending to her offspring is fascinating. After each of Bai Yun’s cubs, our scientific and animal care staff watches the activity in the den in great detail and with unflagging fascination. I love that this very same view into the den will be available to anyone who visits our website.

We are all counting the days to the (hoped for) panda and polar bear births. As part of that, we are making sure that all of our camera systems and microphones are ready in the dens so that we can continue our studies of maternal care behavior in bears. This time around, I hope some young scientists out there will study the bears along with us.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Children and Nature.

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Sugar Bears!

Long ago my dad would take me early in the morning to the donut shop to get the freshest donuts. I remember how beautiful the donuts were when right out of the fryer the baker rolled them in granulated sugar and they just sparkled in the lights of the donut shop! Last Tuesday, May 12, we put over 100 bags of playground sand on the beach for the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears. And by Tuesday afternoon I had three beautiful “sugar donuts” sleeping on exhibit!

The bears were so excited to see and smell the sand. So after quick swims they rolled themselves in the beautiful white crystals. Both Chinook and Tatqiq kept their black noses clean, but our boy Kalluk had a sparkling nose! I think I love these “sugar donuts” even better!

Chinook

Chinook

So many of you have commented on the beautiful white bear you see on the Polar Cam. Are you ready for this? That is our “pigpen” Chinook! She has never looked so beautiful! She has completely finished her molt and seems to be glowing! She was very happy the other day, as well, when the new essential oils from our enrichment wish list came in. Once again she anointed herself with her favorite, “Roman chamomile.” Still no answers on if we’ll see cubs this fall, but we are getting ready. Then den is almost complete and we’re still working out the configuration to hopefully have a den camera that can be shown on the Zoo’s Web site.

Kalluk is definitely out of his breeding daze. I’m sure you’ve seen how much more time he now spends playing and swimming. Tatqiq is ecstatic to have her play buddy back! We are still keeping a variable schedule on all three bears. You may see any combination of one, two, or three out!

I see many of you are asking about what the bears like for beds. On exhibit we have the fresh sand, mulch piles, and burlap coffee bags (which they love). Palm fronds are always a big hit whenever we can get them. In their bedrooms, we can use other items without worrying about clogging up the filtration. The bears do love Bermuda hay, pine needles, mulch, rubber stall mats, and cardboard boxes! All three of them are very good at making their beds using whatever we give them. But Kalluk does seem to take great care in his creations, spending much time moving things around so they are just right. He also uses many of the toys as pillows. It’s pretty funny watching a 1,000-pound boy being so particular about his bed!

In the Arctic, polar bears make beds as well. If the snow is deep enough, they’ll break through the icy crust and dig down to get shelter from the wind. They also dig into kelp beds along the coast. It’s a great soft bed that’s good to eat as well! A few years ago, a big male bear broke into the cardboard bin at the town recycle center in Canada and made himself a bed. He apparently was in there for several days before anyone noticed. Keep recycling. . .it’s good for polar bears in many ways!

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