One of Vilas Zoo’s two polar bears could soon become pregnant and give birth to a cub — and if that happens, it won’t be at the Near West Side zoo.
Since she has reached cub-bearing age, zoo officials are preparing to send the 5-year-old, approximately 600-pound Suka to another zoo to be bred with a male to hopefully produce a cub. Plans aren’t finalized for where she’ll go.
“It’s kind of like if you have kids go off to college,” said Vilas Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz. “We really do love her and she’s a fantastic animal, but she’s going to a great situation and great place where people will love her just as much.”
When Suka leaves sometime in the next few weeks, the zoo’s other polar bear, Berit, will be left to roam a 1.7-acre enclosure.
Schwetz said she anticipates getting another polar bear by the end of the year. The zoo also has the capability to breed bears and has tried unsuccessfully to artificially inseminate Berit.
Continued breeding is important to the iconic species, Schwetz said, because there are only about 60 of the large bears in captivity in the U.S. Males can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
She said zoos are the best way for people to connect with the bears, which are disappearing in the wild.
“We work really closely with all the other zoos that have polar bears to make sure we’re producing as many as we can so that our children and their children have polar bears,” Schwetz said.”
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About 26,000 polar bears remain in the wild across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The bears are listed as a vulnerable species due to reduced access to prey and disappearing sea ice, which the bears depend on to hunt, travel and breed.
The species could disappear in the wild by 2100 due to climate change, according to Polar Bears International. Up to 66 percent could be gone by 2050.
On Saturday — International Polar Bear Day — Suka swam in a pool and paced along her enclosure’s perimeter in between snacks, while Berit rolled around in mud and snow. Children and adults crowded around the polar bear area as part of a celebration of the zoo’s polar bears and farewell to Suka.
Florence Edwards-Miller took her 2-year-old daughter, Genevieve, to see Suka on Saturday. Edwards-Miller said she has taken her daughter to the zoo often and appreciates the conservation efforts the zoo has made for the species.
Genevieve, she said, enjoyed seeing Suka up close.
“She was obviously extremely excited,” she said of Genevieve.
“She likes running around and yelling about bears.”
Mehgan and Alex DeSmidt also took their 11-month-old daughter, Cora, to see the polar bears. It was the first time they had been to the zoo since recently moving back to Madison from South Dakota.
Mehgan DeSmidt said Cora wasn’t intimidated by seeing the polar bear — considered the largest bear species in the world — up close because she’s used to the family’s Goldendoodle dog.