Like so many before him, he left home in the Midwest for life in the big city; and like so many before him, found that the transition wasn’t so easy. But for Gus, a polar bear born at the Toledo Zoo in 1985, the challenges were different.
By his sixth year at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Central Park Zoo in New York City, Gus started showing signs of discontent. And in a move seemingly ripped from a Woody Allen script, the zoo hired an animal psychologist to determine the nature of the bear’s problems.
Gus had begun swimming repetitive figure eights in his pool, over and over and over again, leading his fans to dub him the bipolar bear. He was meant to live in the Arctic, after all; zoo life wasn’t seeming to agree with him.
"He's not meeting our criteria for quality of life," said the bear's therapist, Tim Desmond. "We're trying to perfect his life style."
Needless to say, his diagnosis struck a chord with many New Yorkers also feeling antsy about their quality of life, and Gus became a mascot. Leave it to New York City to have a neurotic polar bear.
Desmond created an “enrichment program” for Gus that included toys, puzzles, positive reinforcement, and a new habitat design better suited for a polar bear in the city. And the plan worked. He and his partner, the lovely Ida, lounged and cavorted like old times and Gus seemed pretty okay.
Ida died in 2011 from liver disease at the age of 25, and as The New York Times reports, “Gus grew listless, slouching around his habitat and swimming little, obviously confused and greatly disturbed by her disappearance.”
Then Gus began having a hard time eating and while under anesthesia for a medical procedure on Tuesday, the WCS veterinarians found a large, inoperable tumor in his thyroid region. The decision was made to euthanize him.
Gus was 27 years old; the median life expectancy for male polar bears in zoos is 20.7 years, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. And for polar bears in the wild, life expectancy is between 15 and 18 years.
“Gus was an icon at the Central Park Zoo and a great source of joy for our visitors and staff,” said Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President of Zoos and Aquarium.
“He was an important ambassador for his species bringing attention to the problems these bears face in the wild due to a changing environment,” he added. “Polar bears are apex predators – the kings of their domain, but vulnerable in a world affected by climate change brought on by human activity.”
And for New Yorkers, he was an important ambassador as well; reminding us that even neurotic polar bears can make it in the city that never sleeps.
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