This week the New York City’s Central Park Zoo lost one of it’s more beloved and celebrated family members, Gus the Polar Bear. Gus, who had lived at the zoo since 1988, moved to the Big Apple when he was 3 years old from Toledo, Ohio where he was born to parents Nanook and Snowball. Gus was 27 years old when he made his way to that big Polar Bear Heaven in the sky this past Tuesday, the average life expectancy for a male polar bear living in a zoo is 20.7 years. Sadly zoo keepers decided to euthanize him after discovering an inoperable tumor in his thyroid region after he began exhibiting signs of a loss of appetite.
Although Gus was “the face” of many promotions for The Central Park Zoo, he was actually more famous for his eccentric behaviors that captured international attention beginning in 1994. The fluffy white bear began swimming in his pool, non-stop for hours on end in figure eight patterns, and according to the New York Times would swim for as many as, “12 hours a day. Every day. Every week. Every month.” Speculation that the Central Park Polar bear had become depressed led to the zoo investing $25,000 in an animal behaviorist for Gus who in the end believed it wasn’t a longing for freedom that was bothering the bear, it was simply that he was suffering from a case of boredom. A life enrichment program was put together for Gus that included new toys and treats as well as, “positive-reinforcement training sessions.” The zoo also decided to switch up his meals turning them, “into challenges. He was compelled to forage for some of his food — mackerel frozen in ice, chicken wrapped in rawhide — to keep his mind and body more active.” The zoo also upgraded his habitat, the habitat that he shared with his two female polar bear companions Ida and Lilly until they passed away in 2004 and 2011, adding a playroom with even more new toys. After a few months, Gus’ lifetime enrichment program seemed to be working and although Gus still kept swimming his figure eight laps, it was not as often and for much shorter periods of time. However, even though Gus’ neurotic swimming behavior improved, his well-documented struggle with boredom not only inspired animal activists and media around the world to write about what they believed was bothering the bear, it also inspired a short play, “Gus” as well as a book entitled, “What’s Worrying Gus: The True Story of a Big City Bear.”
Like a lot of New Yorker’s who transplant to the city and never move back home, Gus developed a nice case of neurosis over the years and turned to buying expensive toys, therapy, and an apartment upgrade to try and find happiness. Gus seemed to have lived an above average, notorious and well celebrated bachelor polar bear life in the Big Apple, one that no one will forget and a life no one will ever really know if Gus was even happy living…maybe he was bored, maybe he was depressed, maybe he just liked working out, or maybe he was obsessed with the number eight, we will never really know for sure. The passing of the Central Park Polar Bear has ignited reactions from the public ranging from memorial letters and poems of appreciation for all the wonderful memories visitors had of the puffy polar bear, to letters of outrage about the lifetime he spent behind zoo walls. Although many argue that Gus would have lived a better life in the wild, a world he never knew as he was born in captivity, one thing is certain, Gus was loved. He was loved by millions of people who came to see the “ swimming bear,” he was loved by his handlers and the zookeepers who cared for him, always monitoring his progress, making sure he had the best treatment, toys, and bigger space to play. Gus was loved by the Zoo employees who brought him stockings full of frozen treats on Christmas and special treats to celebrate his birthday every year. The Central Park polar bear’s 24 years at the zoo not only made him a city icon, he also became a sort of Polar Bear Ambassador, bringing attention to the devastating effects global warming had taken on the world’s polar bear population. RIP Gus, you will be missed dearly, here is hoping wherever you are, you are happy and surrounded by your old polar bear companions Ida and Lilly and all the frozen mackerel a bear could want.
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