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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Tacoma zoo welcomes twin polar bear cubs

By Vonnai Phair, The Seattle Times
Published: June 13, 2023, 7:25am

TACOMA — Tacoma just got un-bear-ably cuter.

Two polar bear cubs, born two years ago at the Detroit Zoo, have arrived at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

The twin sisters, Astra and Laerke, are settling into their new Tacoma home and will make their public debut Thursday, the zoo announced last week. Their arrival marks the return of polar bears to the Tacoma zoo, which has been without one since just over a year ago.

The sibling cubs were reintroduced earlier this spring after living apart for over two years. They “are now inseparable,” according to the zoo.

Laerke had a medical emergency just two days after her birth in November 2020, leaving her weak and in need of constant care. Her sister Astra continued to live with their mother while Laerke was raised in human care and then spent several months sharing a habitat with Jebbie, an orphaned grizzly bear.

“These exceptional bears have captured the hearts of millions of people across the country with their heartwarming stories,” the zoo’s interim general curator Malia Somerville said in the zoo’s announcement.

The two cubs are “smart, high-energy bears who love to splash, pounce and play together in the water,” said the zoo’s assistant curator, Sheriden Ploof.

Zookeepers describe Astra as confident, independent and inquisitive, while Laerke is more cautious and gentle.

Polar bears have a long history in Tacoma. The zoo’s records show polar bears were living at the zoo by 1938, according to Whitney DalBalcon, the zoo’s marketing and communications manager.

Blizzard, the zoo’s previous polar bear, was diagnosed with liver cancer and was euthanized in May 2022.

Blizzard was rescued as an orphaned cub in Churchill, Canada, before coming to Point Defiance in 1997. He had been separated from his mother on the Arctic tundra and had no chance of survival there, according to the zoo.

At 26, he lived past the median life expectancy of 23 years for polar bears in human care, according to statistics from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Since Blizzard’s death, the zoo has been making improvements to the Arctic Tundra habitat — also home to muskoxen and Arctic fox — to prepare for the cubs’ arrival. Keepers replaced rock in the habitat with soft, paw-friendly sand, and they added a tall log structure for the cubs to practice climbing, Ploof said.

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At more than 2 years old, the twins would be living on their own in the wild, away from their mother, so the move to Tacoma is natural and necessary for their continued development, the zoo said.

The twins’ move to Point Defiance is also part of a plan to protect the polar bear species and was recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The seasonal sea ice that polar bears depend on to survive is shrinking due to climate warming, Somerville said. Polar bears are classified as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission has also designated polar bears as facing a high risk of global extinction.

The cubs’ move will help ensure the long-term future of polar bears by creating a “healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied population,” the zoo said.