LINCOLN PARK — Lincoln Park Zoo has its polar bear back.
Siku, a 6-year-old polar bear fresh from the Louisville Zoo, has taken up residence in the zoo's new $15.3 million Arctic Tundra exhibit, which opens to the public Nov. 17. Media got to meet the zoo's new 1,000-pound, 9-foot-tall bear Thursday morning.
"He likes having fun," said Mark Kamhout, curator of mammals at the zoo. "He's got a great disposition and is very playful."
Siku emerged from his den immediately after the door was opened Thursday, took a good long sniff at the air — polar bears have a keen sense of smell to detect and track prey — and breakfasted on some melon and greens. It took all of about 10 minutes before he dropped into the dive pool and started cavorting with a set of floating balls.
"We've even started training him," Kamhout said. "Our zookeepers are developing a really close relationship with him."
They're using "a lot of treats, letting him know we're his buddies, basically."
Training is essential to polar bears, because the apex predators are known to get a little squirrelly in captivity.
"They're very smart," Kamhout said. "That's another reason why we train them, because they would get bored if they're not mentally stimulated."
Longtime Lincoln Park Zoo visitors might recall Thor, fondly remembered for repeatedly swimming back and forth and pushing off against the lower-level viewing window.
Siku, by contrast, came right up to the window to check out who was checking him out, then went on to play with the floating balls.
"Lincoln Park Zoo has such a nice history with polar bears," Kamhout said.
The zoo went two years without a polar bear during construction of the new exhibit after 14-year-old female polar bear Anana was shipped off to the North Carolina Zoo in 2014. About two-thirds of the exhibit area is outdoors. It includes a waterfall, a stream, dive pools and extends around the corner to where the spectacled bears used to be.
"It was built from the ground up to give the polar bears as much choice as possible," and to keep them vital and engaged, Kamhout said.
Live fish can even be released into the pool to give Siku added stimulation — and a hearty snack.
The exhibit plays to visitors as well, as one window in the ice cave has a blast of air conditioning just on the inside to encourage the bear to rest there in warm weather, and another window in the training area has doors that can be thrown open, leaving only an open-air grate between between people and bears, allowing keepers to slip treats through.
Megan Ross, the zoo's senior vice president, said it's great to have a polar bear back.
"They're pretty iconic, and they're really majestic to watch," she said.
They also fit with the zoo's mission to educate on the dangers of climate change and the need to encourage sustainability, as dwindling sea ice limits their habitat.
"Polar bears are really struggling due to climate change," Ross said. "We're hoping to inspire people to make positive changes like using less fossil fuels."
The exhibit also can be divided, to allow a mother and cubs to be separated off on their own, and plans are to take in a female polar bear this winter in hopes of producing cubs according to the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan, akin to the program that has produced sets of red panda cubs at the zoo.
Siku, whose name means "ice" in the language of Alaska’s Inupiaq tribe, has a birthday next month, so he's likely to have a party soon after his formal debut to the public.
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