It’s with heavy hearts that our Zoo family says goodbye to our older female polar bear, Alaska. She was a beloved part of Polar Bear Watch for our guests and her story inspired all of us. No one knew her better than the keeper staff who worked so hard to care for her and the other bears here at The Maryland Zoo. Below are some reflections and personal thoughts from these dedicated animal care providers who remember Alaska fondly.
The following was written by Robyn Johnson, Polar Bear Watch Area Manager:
It is utterly impossible to adequately describe what Alaska has meant to The Maryland Zoo since her arrival almost 11 years ago. The story of her heroic rescue makes her one of our most well-known animals, but it’s her personality that has captured the hearts of all that have shared my privilege to know her. In a few words, she was playful, assertive, curious, smart, stubborn, determined, and above all, lovable. It was here in Baltimore that she learned how to swim, how to dig, how to nest, and the joys of snow. None perhaps was more delighted at her arrival than Magnet, who is especially social for a male polar bear. With Magnet’s affections, Alaska even gave birth to a stillborn cub in 2006. Although not ideal, the fact that she was able to conceive and carry to term spoke to her physical and psychological well-being at the Zoo, and there is no greater compliment as an animal care professional.
Even though we all feel the loss of her passing, it’s hard to be anything but grateful for all that Alaska taught us. She participated in several research projects that have added to the understanding of both captive and wild polar bears. She presented us with unique opportunities to elevate our husbandry and medical care. One example was her willingness to participate in voluntary allergy desensitization treatments after being diagnosed with specific spring allergies. She also knew more trained behaviors than the other bears, despite being deaf. Most importantly, she captivated the attention of so many Zoo visitors over the years.
I have a very specific memory from early on in my career at the Zoo, where Alaska was playing with a large plastic float toy in our underwater viewing pool. She was repeatedly pushing the toy underwater, against it’s natural buoyancy, and chasing it back to the surface. This activity was witnessed by a young visitor about the age of 7 with his mother on an otherwise quiet day. I spent over 15 minutes laughing and talking with these guests answering all their questions about Alaska, polar bears, & the zoo. They left me by saying that they were excited to go to the library and learn more about polar bears. This is the ultimate legacy that Alaska will leave with us: the inspiration that she was, above all, a member of her species for which we can all feel compelled to protect and treasure. Robyn Johnson, Area Manager
The following was written by Tanya White, Polar Bear Watch Keeper:
Alaska came to the Zoo in March of 2002 – she arrived on my birthday and I always said she was one of the best birthday surprises that I ever received. She was in pretty bad physical shape when I first saw her (from her life in the circus), and wasn’t too sure what to make of the fish and meat we gave her. We had to teach her how to be a bear and teach her that meat and fish are good food; although she always preferred romaine over all of the food we gave her.
There are so many memories that I could tell you about, but there are three that stick out. When she was quarantined in the old bear dens, she would always watch as we cleaned the other dens. I always kept an eye on her to see what she was doing and one day I noticed her sitting upright on her rear and waving at me with her right paw!!!! It was very surprising and I called another keeper down to see it, so everyone would believe me.
Magnet , our male bear, had been alone for awhile before we got Alaska, and about a week after we got her, we noticed piles of leaves and sticks near the door from her dens to the yard and couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. We finally noticed Magnet collecting them in the yard and passing them to her by pushing them under the door.
Putting her with Magnet for the first time was also an amazing day! None of us were sure what to expect – we opened the doors and were ready for the worst…..they sniffed each other, he licked her face, and she swatted him on the nose. After about 5 minutes, they were lying down next to each other and falling asleep. They were very close from then on.
Alaska was an amazing animal who touched me in many ways, she taught me that it’s possible to overcome your past, it’s possible to overcome a handicap, and sticks can make great toys!!! I will miss my Laska-Bear!!! Rest in peace lady. Tanya White, Animal Keeper
The following was written by Becky Lynagh, Polar Bear Watch Animal Keeper:
My first day as a keeper at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore happened to be Alaska’s first day on exhibit. The minute I saw her jump into the pool for her first swim my heart melted and she’s had me wrapped around her paw ever since! I don’t think there are enough words to express how fabulous Alaska was. She was the most laid-back and tolerant animal, whose idea of contentment was a nice straw bed and some romaine lettuce. Caring for her for the past 10+ years has been a humbling experience filled with so many memories that I will forever cherish. I am so lucky to have had the wonderful privilege of working with Alaska and I am so proud to have played a role in giving her the comfortable and happy life that she deserved. She was loved by everyone who ever set their eyes on her quirky face and she will be sorely missed by all. Becky Lynagh, Animal Keeper