Zoo tries to avoid bear blues 

As the three polar bears at the San Francisco Zoo prepare to enter their twilight years, some veterinary advisers fear the animals are bored and at risk of mental illnesses.

It’s not uncommon to see Pike, Andy and Ulu — who are in their 20s — acting lethargic and unamused, and they doze off in their grottoes that date back to the 1930s.

The trio have been noticeably inactive for several years, prompting a recent report from Commission of Animal Control and Welfare Chairwoman Sally Stephens and veterinary adviser Joseph Spinelli that calls for the creation of a more-stimulating habitat.

After touring the grottoes with a carnivore keeper, Stephens and Spinelli recommended that the zoo rotate the bears throughout the exhibits, expand their facilities or consider moving the animals entirely.

“The exhibits are just not up to date anymore,” Stephens said. “Do you completely redesign the bear enclosures? You’re talking a lot of money.”

While the bears might need a little extra oomph, that level of liveliness is both difficult and expensive to fix, said Bob Jenkins, vice president for the zoo’s institutional advancement.

“Their report sums up what the zoo has always been saying. It’s an old exhibit. It needs to be renovated,” Jenkins said. “They are older bears. They are used to what they’re doing. We can’t just move them either.”

The zoo also uses its entire $17 million budget to operate the facility, Jenkins said, and does not have any funds for capital improvements.

As the zoo’s management strategizes how to afford bigger pools and a more-spacious residence for the senior bears, zookeepers try to keep them entertained by letting the trio catch fresh fish, dig for blueberries or play with “toys,” usually frozen fish, to keep their brain synapses firing.

And some days it appears the bears forget their age and act like cubs again. Visitors love to watch Pike and Andy slide across the ice while Ulu disguises herself as a brown bear in the dirt, Jenkins said.

“But it’s going to be their sunset years,” Jenkins said. “We’re doing everything we can to make advances.”

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com


Facts about polar bears

775 to 1,700 pounds: Weight of an adult male
330 to 550 pounds: Weight of an adult female
2,209 pounds: Weight of the heaviest polar bear ever recorded
2: Layers of fur polar bears have for insulation
1: Layer of blubber that can measure 4½-inches thick
30+ years: Average life span of polar bear in captivity
15 to 18 years: Average life span in the wild

Source: Polar Bears International

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Kamala Kelkar

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