Detroit Zoo mourns polar bear death during breeding attempt

By: Sarah Wojcik | Metro | Published February 22, 2021

 Anana — a female polar bear brought to the Detroit Zoo from the Cincinnati Zoo in January 2020 to breed with male polar bear Nuka, 16 — died Feb. 8. Nuka killed her in a breeding attempt.

Anana — a female polar bear brought to the Detroit Zoo from the Cincinnati Zoo in January 2020 to breed with male polar bear Nuka, 16 — died Feb. 8. Nuka killed her in a breeding attempt.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

ROYAL OAK — Hot on the heels of the ecstatic Jan. 28 announcement that female polar bear Suka, 8, had successfully birthed twin cubs via male polar bear Nuka, 16, the Detroit Zoo about-faced into tragedy.

On Feb. 8, Nuka killed 20-year-old female polar bear Anana during a breeding attempt. She succumbed to bite wounds to her head and neck area during a breeding attempt facilitated between the two large carnivores who had previously peacefully coexisted.

In January 2020, Anana came to the Detroit Zoo from the Cincinnati Zoo on a recommendation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ polar bear species survival plan because both Anana and Nuka have proven to be fertile, and Anana’s attempts at producing offspring with Little One, the Cincinnati Zoo’s 30-year-old male polar bear, were unsuccessful.

Despite the recommendation, Dr. Randi Meyerson, deputy chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society and chair of the AZA’s polar bear species survival plan, said the group tries not to move polar bears more than they need to because they bond with zookeepers and each other.

The pair had been apart for several months but were reintroduced as part of the AZA’s polar bear species survival plan. Currently, there are only about 55 polar bears in 25 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, according to the zoo.

The death, while unexpected and tragic, is something that DTZ Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter described as part of the natural cycle of life of large carnivores in the wild, which can be brutal and unforgiving.

“It was such a tough thing to deal with. Everybody here is certainly feeling it, but we are dealing with it and moving on,” Carter said. “We brought in grief counselors for the staff if they want that.”

Carter said that, while Nuka has socially been agreeable with females and has fathered cubs, it is important to remember that large carnivore breeding can sometimes be aggressive and violent.

“We may never know what triggered what happened on Monday,” Carter said. “We are still trying very hard to figure out what caused this.”

He added that the Detroit Zoo has not experienced the killing of one animal by another animal in decades. The last occurrence was also with polar bears in 1988.

On Feb. 8, Carter said, the temperatures were very cold, so not many guests were at the zoo when Anana died. He said that in usual large carnivore fashion, the male was in control and held onto Anana with his teeth.

Staff lured Nuka to the inside of the polar bear habitat with food, but it was tragically apparent that Anana had already succumbed to her injuries. The zoo performed a full necropsy and will continue working on a plan for new parents Nuka and Suka.

Because polar bears are generally solitary animals, the plan has always been to keep Nuka away from Suka and her offspring for at least two years, mirroring the family schematic documented among their wild counterparts.

“We are going to try to learn from this as much as we can and keep moving on for all the other more than 2,000 animals at the zoo,” Carter said.

According to the zoo, full-grown polar bears stand 6 to 9 feet tall, weigh 450-1,400 pounds, and live to be 21-24 years old.

Despite the monumental setback of Anana’s death, Carter said the two cubs born to Suka are both doing very well. While one is in Suka’s care, the other, a female, has been hand-reared by zoo staff after she appeared to stop moving the second day after her birth.

The plan is for the female cub to return to the polar bears’ tundra and pack ice habitat in the Arctic Ring of Life, which also houses arctic foxes. Staff is not yet sure whether the human-reared cub can be reunited with her mother and sibling. It all depends on the bears and their temperaments.

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road, west of Woodward Avenue.

For more information, call (248) 541-5717 or visit detroitzoo.org.