Wintertime for Zoo staff at the Seneca Park Zoo means getting the grounds and animal exhibits ready for the long, cold months ahead. Many different animals enjoy the change of seasons. Visitors coming to the Zoo this time of year may be hoping to catch a glimpse of two Zoo residents built for the winter: our polar bears, Aurora and Zero. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done at times. So, where are the bears?
As part of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP), our bears are considered valuable in terms of producing genetically-sound offspring. This is done to ensure a strong population in conservation care in the event of a catastrophe in the population in nature.
Since 1990 Aurora has given birth to five cubs, and with every success and failure, the staff has refined its techniques to make this experience as positive and stress-free as possible for her, which brings us to today. The bears’ off-exhibit area is equipped with a cubbing den, meant to mimic a quiet, dark, warm and safe place where a female would give birth and nurse her cubs for a few months. Ours is unique, however, as we have a system of cameras set up to catch any denning activity, as well as a way to observe her maternal care should she have cubs (she’s a great mom).
So, where do male polar bears fit in to all of this? For the most part, they don’t. They provide no care to their young and can actually be a threat to the young as well as to mother bears. From about mid-October until roughly January, our bears are kept separate. When one bear has access to the exhibit, the other is kept inside in a large area with a pool, different substrates, enrichment opportunities and, of course, quality time spent with our keeper staff. There is one area that the male doesn’t see for weeks or months at a time however: the female’s cubbing den. Even picking up his scent in this area could cause stress and complicate a potential pregnancy.
As our bears take turns being on exhibit, Zero is almost always visible when outdoors. Aurora however, would much rather be indoors, interacting with staff or napping in her denning area. Seeing her this time of year can require lots of patience and a little luck, but the hope is that all of this could result in another season of watching mom and babies enjoying the climate they were truly made for.
Please note: At this time, it does not appear that Aurora is pregnant. However, in the interest of her welfare, the Zoo will continue to keep the bears separated until cubbing season has concluded. Females do not show (newborns are very small, weighing about two pounds) and a female bear’s behavior during this time is not always indicative of what her reproductive status may be.
– Ryan Statt, Zoologist