This week, the Maryland Zoo bid goodbye to Alaska the polar bear, one of the zoo’s most-beloved residents — and an animal with a Hollywood-ready life featuring evil zookeepers, valiant vets, and polar bear sign language. Seriously, someone should option this:
Alaska came to Baltimore via a remarkably un-polar place: Puerto Rico. In 1998, she was performing with a Mexican circus group when a photographer happened to see the circus keepers hitting the animals and forcing them to perform demeaning tricks. Though animal rights activists protested, there wasn’t much that could be done — until the circus made the poor decision to travel to Puerto Rico in 2002. Since that country’s animal husbandry is regulated by the USDA, U.S. officials were legally able to move in and seize the animals. (The zoo reports that Alaska was “abandoned” in Puerto Rico, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, according to earlier news reports.) Alaska and six fellow polar bears were reportedly kept in un-airconditioned rooms that got as hot as 113 degrees Fahrenheit — especially egregious, considering that polar bears can start to overheat at 32 degrees. After a veterinary DNA test revealed that Alaska (then known as “Snowball”) was not the polar bear the circus’ papers claimed she was, the 800 pound bear was sedated and transported to Baltimore.
“When Alaska arrived at the Zoo, she was overweight and had poor muscle tone,” says Mike McClure, the zoo’s general curator. “We weren’t sure if she would even know how to swim. However, with a change in diet and lifestyle, she did end up spending a lot of time in the pool with Magnet and she became a Zoo favorite.”
But shortly after her arrival, Alaska’s keepers noticed that she behaved a little strangely. Zoo vets quickly determined that she was deaf, so the keepers came up with a training program incorporating hand signals. Alaska took to sign language like a polar bear to an iceberg (sorry): “She knew more behaviors than the other two bears combined,” McClure remembers.
In February 2008, Alaska was diagnosed with early kidney disease. For a number of years, the zoo vets managed Alaska’s health by monitoring her diet and developing medical treatments. In recent months, however, the disease kept progressing, and Alaska’s quality of life began to decline. The zoo made the tough decision to euthanize the bear this month. “Alaska was a very special animal,” McClure says. “One of the most amazing and personable bears you’ll ever see in your life. She will be sorely missed.”