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Kansas City polar bear's repetitive swimming worries some

Thursday, September 23, 2010 | 6:27 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Look, kids, here comes the polar bear.

Here he comes around again.

And again

Again.

Nikita the polar bear spends much of his days just swimming in circles in his new $11 million home at the Kansas City Zoo. He's beautiful to behold underwater through the huge glass windows. But visitors are beginning to wonder about his repetitive behavior.

"It saddens me to watch that bear doing laps," said Kyle Bradley of Raytown, a zoo supporter. "I stopped counting them at 30."

It is called stereotypic behavior and it is, unfortunately, common among polar bears and other species in captivity. Sometimes it takes the form of pacing or swaying or excessive grooming. But Robert Buchanan, president and CEO of the conservation group Polar Bears International, predicted that Nikita's behavior would change as he becomes acclimated to his new exhibit, which opened last month.

"The animal is just burning off energy," Buchanan said Wednesday during a visit to Kansas City and the zoo. "The animal is doing fine."

Zoos have tried a variety of approaches to grapple with stereotypic behavior. Buchanan's organization sponsored a major study into the issue.

"We've got some ideas that we can try," said Randy Wisthoff, the Kansas City Zoo's director, said Wednesday shortly before an official ribbon-cutting for the polar bear exhibit. "We'll see what we can do to break him of that habit."

Wisthoff said zookeepers will try switching out Nikita's "toys," such as flotation barrels and balls, at midday to keep his interest. Zookeeper Andrea O'Daniels is traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, this weekend to learn more about polar bears.

In addition, Wisthoff and general curator Liz Harmon recently returned from a zoo industry conference in Houston where they conferred with other institutions and scholars about polar bear husbandry.

Nikita is alone in his exhibit, but males in the wild lead largely solitary lives until they are ready to mate. At nearly 4 years old, Nikita is not yet sexually mature.

New polar bear exhibits are vast improvements over the old concrete and bars once commonly found in zoos. Kansas City's exhibit meets or exceeds modern standards. In fact, at 9,568 square feet it is 77 percent larger than specified in guidelines by the province of Manitoba, which are considered on the forefront of polar bear husbandry.

The exhibit has a 140,000-gallon pool and waterfall as well as foraging and grassy areas. But swimming laps, even in comfortably chilled water, is not much different from pacing on concrete.

The Polar Bears International study, by research scientist David Shepherdson of the Oregon Zoo, found no conclusive evidence linking stereotypic behavior to stress on the animal's part. Shepherdson also found no correlation between the behavior and the complexity of the exhibit or whether the animal was born wild or in captivity. Nikita was born at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio.

The study found that numerous daily enrichment activities did reduce repetitive behavior among female bears, but the effect on male bears was not statistically significant.

The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago reported success in reducing pacing by a male polar bear by leaving the door to its holding area open during zoo hours, giving the animal the choice of where it wants to be.

Wisthoff said Kansas City would experiment with allowing Nikita access to his holding area during the day.

Other zoo species, particularly big cats and elephants, also are susceptible to stereotypic behavior.

The expansion of the Kansas City Zoo in the 1990s was mindful of that with its large, naturalistic settings. Staffs here and at other zoos also try to keep animals' lives interesting by hiding food in their exhibits and providing other diversions.

The Kansas City Zoo's cheetahs, for example, are periodically exposed to a mechanical lure that whizzes a colored rag just above the ground for the fast-moving animals to chase.

But critics say no zoo can replace a polar bear's natural territory, which can cover thousands of square miles.

"Polar bears are the perfect example of a species whose habitat and range cannot be even remotely simulated in captivity," reported a study for the Humane Society of the United States called "The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity."

Conservationists, such as Polar Bears International, argue that polar bears' sea-ice habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate because of climate change. They say animals in zoos can be a powerful tool to educate the public about their plight and conservation in general.

Buchanan praised the Kansas City Zoo and the public here for creating an outstanding polar bear exhibit and spreading that message.

"We're watching bears (in the wild) disappear in front of our eyes, daily, from starvation," he said. "That's a problem — not a bear swimming in circles."


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