YOU (South Africa)
Finding a friend for a lonely bear
Abandoned as a cub by her mom at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Nora the polar bear was hand-reared by a group of women. But having spent so much time with humans she found it hard to form a bond with her own kind and became depressed. So the next challenge: finding a friend for the loneliest bear on the planet
SHE weighed roughly the size of a squirrel. Her eyes and ears were fused shut. Her only sense of the world around her came from smell, and her nose led her in one direction: towards the gravity and heat of her mother, a 272kg polar bear named Aurora.
Their den was made of cinder block, painted white and illuminated by a single red bulb in the ceiling. The floor was piled high with straw. The air, heavy with captive musk and kept artificially cool to mimic the Arctic, was pierced periodically by the cries of Nora, a pink-andwhite wriggling ball of polar bear, tucked into the folds of her mother’s fur.
Around 9am on Nora’s sixth day, Aurora rose, stretched and ambled out of the den. The cub was completely reliant on her mother, alone and vulnerable without her. As the chilly air crept in, Nora cast her head from side to side, screeching as she searched for something familiar. When she found no answer, she began to wail.
Outside, three women monitored what was happening. Zoo veterinarian Priya Bapodra peered at a grainy, red video – a live feed from inside the den. For five days, the women worked in rotating shifts, keeping a 24-hour watch on Nora.
She’d been born a twin on 6 November 2015, but the other cub had died the following day. Nora was the first polar bear cub to live more than a few days at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which had opened in the American Midwestern state of Ohio in 1927.
The zoo had unveiled its $20 million (then around R150m) Arctic attraction, Polar Frontier, in 2010. By 2015 it was home to three adult polar bears plus Nora and at half a hectare, the enclosure was spacious enough for all of them.
The den where Nora spent her first days was nothing like where she would have been raised in the wild, but it was as close as humans could muster in the suburbs of central Ohio.
Most polar bear cubs born in captivity live less than a month. Only about a third survive to adulthood. When keepers are forced to raise the cubs themselves, the odds are worse. Without their mothers, cubs can’t regulate their temperature, they succumb to disease and infection, malnutrition and bone issues.
In the wild, a mother polar bear never leaves the den, even to eat. But this eight-year-old mother wandered down a hallway, past the food her keepers had left for her and towards the other side of the enclosure.
An alert went out over a text message thread to the rest of the animal-care team, letting them know something was amiss. Ten minutes passed. Maternal instincts are innate in animals, but Aurora appeared conflicted. Twenty minutes now.
As time ticked by, the tension in the trailer grew. Nora’s cries reminded the keepers of their own children, only louder and more urgent.
The women in the trailer knew that if they stepped in to help Nora, there would be no going back. It would not be possible to return the bear to her mother, as Aurora would not accept her. The responsibility of raising the helpless cub would fall to them.
Although the women had decades of experience hand-raising jungle cats, livestock and primates, none of them had ever raised a polar bear. There were only a handful of people in the world who had even tried.
THREE hours had now gone by and the keepers gave Aurora a deadline: one more hour. Nora’s odds would plummet the instant they plucked her from the den, but they didn’t want to stand by and watch her die. Left alone, her odds were zero.
Almost four hours after Aurora left the den, Nora’s cries weakened ever so slightly and she looked sluggish. It was time. One of the women went to the far side of the den compound with a plate of fish, distracting Aurora so she wouldn’t notice as the door slid shut behind her. Another quietly secured the door with a padlock. As it clicked into place, any remaining bond between Nora and her mother was severed.
The keepers would never know why Aurora – who had also been born in captivity, at a different zoo – abandoned her cub. Maybe she sensed that the baby bear was fragile. Perhaps she saw the death of Nora’s twin and instinctually knew that caring for a sickly cub could put her own survival at risk, as it would in the wild.
Priya stared at the thermometer and at the white cub. Just as the vet had feared. Nora, who had now been without her mother’s warmth for more than four hours, was so cold her body temperature wouldn’t register. The cub wriggled and squirmed and screeched against the
intrusion, the strange smells, the foreign feel of human hands.
Moments earlier, Priya had entered the den and nestled Nora into the warm blankets lining a plastic bin before the vet rushed her to the zoo’s medical centre, where the cub went straight into the intensive-care unit. Priya knew that if she didn’t stabilise and warm the little bear, she would lose her.
The women who became collectively known as the Nora Moms had their 23-page plan, with step-by-step instructions in the subsection “Removal of Cub”. They had an incubator the size of a double-wide refrigerator. Priya set the small-animal compartment to 31°C and lined it with clean baby blankets.
A few buildings away, the phone rang in the zoo’s nutrition centre, where a small crew worked to feed the facility’s 7 000 animals. Dana Hatcher picked up. Could she bring the formula within an hour?
Dana set to work, using Excel spreadsheets and metric weights. She had never cooked for a polar bear before, but knew they were among the most difficult animals to feed. In the wild they lived almost entirely off ringed seals, whose blubber added richness to polar bear mothers’ milk. The zoo had nothing that would accurately mimic seal fat.
Fortunately, a veterinarian from another zoo had managed to study wild polar bear milk just a few years earlier. To get it, scientists in helicopters had to fire tranquilliser darts at mother polar bears on the frozen fjords in the Svalbard archipelago, north of mainland Norway, then hand-milk them on the ice.
Knowing the chemical composition of that milk gave Dana an advantage: she knew, roughly, what nutrients Nora would need.
She started with a can of powdered kitten milk replacer – baby formula for cats – and sifted it so it wouldn’t clump. The formula was low in fat, leaving Dana room to add kilojoules.
Dana knew the sugars in the cat formula would be hard on Nora’s stomach. It took a few tries, but she figured out that heating the water to a specific temperature would help break down the lactose. She also knew that polar bears need lots of taurine to help absorb vitamins, so she crushed taurine tablets with a mortar and pestle and added that to the mixture.
Then came the biggest and most important piece of the puzzle: Nora needed fat, and lots of it, to grow. But what kind?
Human’s and cow’s milk contain about 3,5% fat. Polar-bear milk is more than eight times as rich, with a fat content of more than 30%.
The birth plan recommended using herring oil, but that was available only from Canada. Shipping it across the border would be complicated and she didn’t have time. Dana considered her options and went with safflower oil.
She poured it all into an industrial blender and hit the button. The mixture frothed but ended up too thick to drink. The big blender was too powerful. She wished she had the Magic Bullet she used to make salsa at home. She sent a staff member on a quick trip to buy one.
The smaller mixer proved to be the key. It was ready.
Zookeeper Cindy Cupps was charged with Nora’s first feeding. She scooped her up. Thin white fur covered Nora’s back and legs. Her squeals fluctuated between a high-pitched whine and a miniature roar. Her tongue lapped about freely in search of something to suckle. After not feeding for roughly five hours, Nora was famished.
Cindy draped a towel across her thigh and slid her hand under Nora’s soft belly. She held the cub upright so she wouldn’t inhale any of the formula.
The keeper tipped the bottle towards Nora and she latched on. She fed so tenaciously
Athat a small milk moustache formed around her mouth.
S THE days turned into weeks, Nora grew feistier. Her eyes were still closed but she began moving around the incubator on her own. Her head was too big and her tummy too round for her to stand, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
At the 30-day mark, in early December, Nora’s odds of survival, once so remote, improved to 50-50. A coin flip. The “moms” breathed a little easier.
By the end of January it was time to move her from the animal hospital to Polar Frontier. But she was still too small to be in the same enclosure as the other bears. The young bear had a lot to learn and only humans to learn it from.
In her new home, two keepers pulled on wetsuits and waded into the two-metre-deep pool to show her it was safe. The cub stalked the edge of the water before dipping in a paw. A few minutes later, she waded in.
Nora was a natural swimmer. Seeing her take off in the water, paddling with her outsize paws, assured the keepers that there were things about being a bear that, somehow, Nora already knew.
But when she reached five months, her keepers had to pull back. Her claws and teeth had got longer and sharper. She was too big and too strong to be with humans
but too small to be with the other bears, who could easily injure or kill her. And after five months with the keepers it was unclear whether she knew which species she belonged to.
A zoo was found that not only had enough space for the growing cub but also could offer the companionship of another bear. Nora seemed to be perfect company for Tasul, an older bear that lived at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
At 31, Tasul was one of the oldest bears alive at the time. She had been born in a zoo and had spent her life with her brother, Conrad. When he died, she was alone for the first time. She had been socialised to be around other bears and, though she was arthritic and a little slow, was just the kind of animal that could serve as a mentor to a younger bear.
But when Nora arrived in Portland in the autumn of 2016 their introduction didn’t go as any of the keepers had hoped. As soon as Tasul saw Nora, she broke into a sprint straight at the cub. Nora, confronted with an unfamiliar animal more than twice her size coming right at her, turned and ran.
Over the next days, when the bears were together, Tasul tried to make herself approachable. She looked away when Nora got close. She lowered herself to the ground to appear smaller. She tried to initiate play but Nora wasn’t interested.
The cub started to deteriorate emotionally. Distressed, she barked like an angry seal. She pawed at the concrete, digging imaginary holes. She paced in circles, bumping into toys but ignoring them. She fixated on her keepers, and any time they left she threw a tantrum.
A vet prescribed Nora Xanax to calm her. She took the pills, hidden in ground horsemeat. But Nora still paced. In addition she was put on fluoxetine, a generic version of the antidepressant Prozac.
Meanwhile, Tasul was diagnosed with cancer. She died just a couple of weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, leaving Nora alone once again. It was decided she would move to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. A companion had been found: a bear from Toledo, Ohio, born only about a month after Nora. Her name was Hope.
The Hogle zookeepers did everything they could to acquaint the two bears with each other. Nora and Hope were in separate holding areas, but the keepers had been passing toys between them so they could get used to each other’s scents. Before long it was time for them to meet face to face.
Nora was in place. Soon after Hope walked in, the chase started. The keepers had assumed Hope would be the braver bear, but it was Nora who strode right up to her much larger counterpart. Hope turned and ran and, after a short pursuit, jumped into the pool. She clambered out and the roles reversed, Hope trotting after Nora. After a few more chases the bears settled into their respective corners of the exhibit. It was clear that Nora was wary.
Though Hope had a sizeable weight advantage, she was never aggressive with her smaller companion and never intruded into the personal space Nora clearly needed. At one point she even grabbed a toy in her jaws, trotted towards Nora and dropped it at her feet, almost like a peace offering. Nora seemed confused, still unable to read the body language of another bear.
All of Nora’s moves had been in service of finding her a companion. Now that she had one, the two were barely interacting.
AROUND her second birthday in November 2017, it became obvious that, for all her skittishness, Nora was learning. Hope would walk up a log in a specific way, then, as soon as she was across the exhibit, Nora would repeat the action, step for step. When Hope twisted a ball to get at the food inside, Nora would be right behind her doing the same.
Suddenly, the bears were right up next to each other. Hope offered a playful swipe at Nora, who responded with a lunge, aiming for but missing the bigger bear’s neck. After a few seconds of openmouth posturing they were both on their hind legs, arms wrapped around each other, waving their heads back and forth, showing off their teeth.
Hope could have easily overpowered her smaller counterpart, but instead sat down and let Nora roll her over.
Nora hopped on top and the two slapped at and bit around each other’s faces. The bears had made the breakthrough everyone was waiting for – they were playing.
HOPE GRABBED A TOY, TROTTED TOWARDS NORA AND DROPPED IT, LIKE A PEACE OFFERING