Love Is In The Air
By Caitlyn Bruce
February is the month that many of us find ourselves celebrating love. Whether it’s love that has already withstood the test of time, or new affection that is just beginning to form, Valentine’s Day is the holiday we set aside as a celebration of our loved ones. Why should it be any different for the polar bears at the Buffalo Zoo?
Most everyone that is familiar with the Buffalo Zoo in any form is also familiar with our darling 4-year-old female polar bear, Luna. It has been a delight for the people of Buffalo to have had the opportunity to watch Luna grow from the little 30-pound cub she was when she was first introduced to the public at three and half months old, to the 500 pound bear she is today. We have watched every major event in her life, her big public debut that made world news; moving to different exhibits around the zoo to accommodate her growing size; being introduced and living with the young orphaned male polar bear Kali; and even the tough stuff like when she broke her leg and the recovery process involved with that. We have all been there to watch her and cheer her on.
It is now time to celebrate another major event in her life, her first real boyfriend, Sakari! Sakari is an almost 1000 pound, 4-year-old male that was originally born at the Toledo Zoo in 2012. He moved around a little since then, but ultimately came to the Buffalo Zoo from the Henry Villas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin in November of 2016. His move here to be with Luna was recommended by the Species Survival Plan for polar bears. Species Survival Plans (or SSP’s) are programs that are led by professional advisers who make animal pairing recommendations for certain species of animals in AZA accredited zoos to maintain genetic diversity and the long term health of populations in human care. Essentially, they are the “match makers” of the zoo world!
Polar bears have an incredible sense of smell, so from the moment Sakari arrived and was placed into the quarantine area of the polar bear holding building, both he and Luna knew that there was a new bear around them, even though neither could see the other. This interest continued for the next few weeks while Sakari was undergoing his quarantine period inside until the day finally came that he could go out on exhibit. The bears were still separated by walls, but that didn’t stop Sakari from sitting up on his giant haunches on top of the berm in his exhibit so he could peer over to the exhibit next door to finally see Luna.
The first time Luna saw this new bear peeping over at her, she was a little confused and a little nervous. She had smelled him for weeks already but there he was all of a sudden, his giant head looking down at her from next door! The nervousness quickly went away and the bears were soon observed interacting with each other through the very small gaps in the large heavy machinery door that separates the two bear exhibits. They would playfully paw at the door and lay by it, even though the gaps were so small that even little Luna could hardly fit a paw in.
When enough positive interaction was seen between the pair and Sakari was completely familiar and comfortable with both the exhibits and the daily routine of his new home, it was decided that they were ready for the next step towards being together, a more complete and personal visual introduction. In order to achieve this, we used a “howdy door”, which is a door that is made of large metal mesh. This allows for close interaction between the bears, but prevents any aggressive fighting and allows either bear to leave the area if they are feeling stressed. When Luna first saw Sakari so closely and completely, she seemed only slightly taken back. That was a little surprising, considering he is almost twice her size and the last time Luna was so close to another polar bear was almost a year and a half ago. Even when Sakari approached the mesh, she stood by and watched what he was doing. Sakari was immediately very happy to see her and “chuffed” at her with a happy greeting. When Luna saw that he was acting in a nonthreatening way, she relaxed and they interacted between the mesh, licking each other and pawing at each other. After about a week of seeing so much positive behavior during this protected interaction, we decided that they seemed comfortable enough with each other that we could move on to the final step towards putting them together: the physical introduction.
Even with as much positive interaction observed between the pair that we had observed, there is always a certain amount of worry and stress that goes with putting two huge carnivores together for the first time. Before opening up the howdy door, we made sure both bears were well fed and as relaxed as possible. Finally, once both were at the mesh and aware of the other, we opened up the howdy door and let the bears go together.
It couldn’t have possibly gone any better. They immediately started playing and interacting with each other. They only had access to the large holding area at first to allow Zoo staff to have more control in case there was some sort of problem or they started fighting. After watching them inside for only about 10 minutes, we knew we had nothing to worry about and let them in the habitat together. They are now inseparable and spend almost all their time together, both awake and asleep. The only time we even attempt to separate them is for feeding times; and, even then they are only apart for about five minutes and are anxious to get back together. Luna will occasionally get a little pushy with him while they play as Luna has a tendency to do, but Sakari is such a calm and laid back guy that he just lets her do what she wants and takes it all in stride.
Luna and Sakari are both considered to be on the younger side when it comes to breeding. Females usually aren’t mature enough to produce cubs until they are about five years old and males until they are about six years old, so it would be very surprising if our pair produced any cubs in the next year. In the mean time, they need to get to know each other a little better and make their relationship official.