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Baby bear on board

Toronto Zoo experience highlights breeding challenge

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Hudson plays at the  Assiniboine Zoo Friday.

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Hudson plays at the Assiniboine Zoo Friday.

Staff at Assiniboine Park Zoo hope to one day breed polar bears but they're well aware the ferocious beasts won't automatically become nurturing mothers who love their cubs.

The Winnipeg exhibit's four bears, Storm, Kaska, Aurora and Hudson, are too young to breed now, but the recent behaviour of Hudson's mother, Aurora, at the Toronto Zoo has Winnipeg staff taking note.

At the Toronto Zoo, Aurora rejected and attacked her first two cubs. Her third cub, Hudson, was taken by zoo staff before his mother could kill him, and was bottle-fed in 2011 before coming to Winnipeg.

The Toronto Zoo's latest offspring, a brother to Hudson who was born Nov. 9 to Aurora, remains in an incubator in the zoo's intensive-care unit. After a month of drinking formula from a bottle, the little bruiser tipped the scale last week at just under two kilograms.

Zoo staff took the cub away from Aurora to keep it alive, a necessity that left them asking why the cub's mom, 13-year-old Aurora, had been unable (or unwilling) three times in a row, to raise her cubs even for a few weeks.

"We are not quite sure," said John Tracogna, chief executive of the Toronto Zoo. "Moms in the wild will often come out of the caves without their young as well. Each year we are learning more."

Still, Assiniboine Park Zoo has plans to mate its bears.

"We have some challenges of our own," says Janice Martin, curator of collections at the city zoo.

With 201 polar bears in accredited zoos worldwide, and only 14 of those in Canada, it's important the bears breed in captivity. Unfortunately, some of the bears are too young, some are past reproduction age and some, such as Aurora, are dangerous to their offspring.

Brian Joseph, the director of zoological operations at Assiniboine Park Zoo, said Hudson's mother was simply learning to parent.

"Sometimes mothers have to learn to be mothers," said Joseph.

"A lot of mothering -- whether you're a polar bear, a beluga or a human -- is learned. It's not as instinctual as you would think. A lot of the responsibilities actually lie with the baby to find out how to nurse, to learn how to nurse."

However, Steven Ferguson, an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba and a research scientist at Oceans and Fisheries Canada, said Aurora's rejection of her cubs is not a behaviour he's heard of in polar bears outside of captivity.

The Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo is set to open in late June or early July.

"We're representing the animals the best we can and allowing them to tell their stories is what we strive for," said Joseph.

 

-- with files from Jessica Botelho-Urbanski and the National Post

jordan.power@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 B1

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