Beloved polar bear Nora is moving to Oregon Zoo this fall

August 10, 2016 - 9:56am

Polar bear Nora

Young bear has been growing up in the public eye since her birth at Columbus Zoo

Nora, the young polar bear who has captivated much of the country since her birth at the Columbus Zoo last November, is moving to the Oregon Zoo this fall. An official date for this Arctic ambassador's West Coast debut has not been set, but visitors may be able to see Nora in her new home as early as mid-October.

Nora was born on Nov. 6, 2015, at the Columbus Zoo. Her mother initially provided maternal care, but after about a week she left the cub unattended in the den for prolonged periods of time. At that point, the Columbus Zoo care team made the difficult decision to hand-rear the cub and began providing around-the-clock care. Nora weighed about 1 pound when the care team began raising her; she now weighs more than 150.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan recommended Nora's transfer so that the Columbus Zoo could provide the best environment for future cubs to be born. Would-be mothers require calm and quiet, which would not have been possible with the scheduled habitat rotations that occurred with Nora.

The timing of Nora's departure is critical for the success of possible cubs, as Columbus Zoo keepers have observed female polar bears Aurora and Anana breeding with the male, Nanuq. If they become pregnant, the female bears could enter their dens in October and could give birth as early as November.

The SSP recommendation was issued after Tasul lost her brother and longtime habitat companion, Conrad — the oldest male of his species in any North American zoo or aquarium — who was humanely euthanized in July. Keepers believe the good-natured Tasul is likely to befriend Nora and can serve as a mentor to the juvenile bear as she grows into an adult.

"We are very excited to welcome Nora and are optimistic that Tasul and she will be good companions," said curator Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's marine life area. "We have an amazing keeper team here, which has enabled our bears to participate in some critical conservation science. We anticipate continuing that with Nora through some cooperative training, which the Columbus Zoo staff have already started in order to provide the best possible care."

Tasul and Nora already share something in common in that they represent significant advancements in polar bear welfare. In 2011, before Nora contributed to the country's understanding of how to raise polar bears in human care, Tasul became the first polar bear in the world to voluntarily give blood — a significant advance that improves animal welfare, especially during veterinary treatment. After reading about this milestone in the news, Dr. Karyn Rode, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Polar Bear Team, contacted the zoo for assistance with the USGS's Changing Arctic Ecosystems research.

Since then, Tasul has helped Rode research how climate change is affecting the diets of wild polar bears and has helped the USGS in tackling another climate change mystery, by wearing a high-tech collar to track her movements. Polar bears are extremely difficult to observe in the wild, and Tasul's data is helping researchers develop methods to remotely investigate how these predators are responding to the retreat of sea ice.

"The scientists we collaborate with are interested in getting information from more than one bear, and the age difference between the two is a valuable contrast as we try to understand how sea-ice loss will affect polar bears during different stages of life," Cutting said. "Tasul is a geriatric bear, and Nora is quite young. It could be that we learn different things about polar bears from each of them."

Nora's birth has been an important one for animal-care facilities across the country. Polar bear births are relatively rare. Born blind, helpless and less than a pound in weight, these mammals have only a 50 percent survival rate in their first weeks of life, both in the Arctic Circle and in human care.

"We are overjoyed to share this important milestone in Nora's life with the fantastic care team at the Oregon Zoo," said Tom Stalf, Columbus Zoo president and CEO. "To think back to that first week of her life, when there was such a high chance that she would not survive, we cannot be anything but happy to see her grow into the strong, playful and intelligent bear she has become."

Nora will be introduced to her Oregon Zoo care team while still in Ohio, and her Columbus Zoo care team will travel with her to Oregon to help facilitate her transition.

The Oregon Zoo has recently launched design of a new polar bear habitat, Polar Passage, the sixth of eight major construction projects funded by a public bond passed in 2008.

"If Tasul and Nora need a temporary home during construction, they will go to another AZA-accredited facility equipped to care for polar bears, and they will stay together to maintain their bond," Cutting said.

Polar bears are threatened by climate change, and if current climate warming trends are left unchecked, scientists predict wild polar bear populations will decline by up to two-thirds by 2050. Rising temperatures are melting the Arctic sea ice shelf that polar bears use to access their primary food, ringed seals, and that provides shelter necessary for the species' survival. The melting landscape creates a dangerous survival cycle for the bears; they have less solid ice surface on which to hunt, which means more swimming, which requires more calories, which can only be consumed through more hunting.

Polar bears have been designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission has reclassified the polar bear as a vulnerable species and placed it on its Red List. The Red List identifies species facing a high risk of global extinction.