ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Anana, a female polar bear, had delivered cubs before but when several mating seasons passed at the Cincinnati Zoo without her producing any cubs, Anana was taken to The Detroit Zoo.
And at The Detroit Zoo is where Anana was introduced to Nuka, a younger, larger polar bear.
Zoo staff and members of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums had hoped the two would mate and Anana would once again deliver cubs into the program.
The SSP is a "cooperative population management and conservation program that helps ensure the sustainability of healthy captive animal populations," according to a statement from The Detroit Zoo.
Anana and Nuka spent most of 2020 together without breeding. In October they were separated so they could be alone which is what polar bears like late in the year. After several months apart, Anana and Nuka were reintroduced last week.
First, they had a steel mesh barrier between them that allows them to see, smell, and even touch each other.
There were no issues. So, the next day, the two polar bears were allowed to be together in the large Arctic Ring of Life habitat at the Detroit Zoo, one of the largest habitats for polar bears in the United States.
All seemed well, but zookeepers didn't get the sense that the two were ready to mate.
"We didn't expect breeding to start yesterday," said Detroit Zoological Society Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter. "Normally when that happens, we see the bears' behavior change and we begin to see indications of interest by him that can often take several days before breeding really happens."
But, apparently, Nuka was ready.
Polar bears mating is intense and it may appear to some people that they are fighting, Carter told WXYZ.
"It involves the male really being in physical control of the female, including trying to hold her by the skin on the back of her neck," he said.
A necropsy is being conducted, but we're told most of the injuries inflicted on Anana were to her head.
"We believe this resulted, probably, from his sudden interest in breeding," Carter said. "And we suspect she wasn't ready and wasn't receptive."
There were no witnesses to the killing. When zookeepers spotted Anana's body, they coaxed Nuka back into a confined area with food so they could get to Anana, but she was dead.
Counseling is being made available to zoo staff as they mourn the death of Anana.
A spokesperson for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden released the following statement to WXYZ on Tuesday:
Cincinnati Zoo staff members, and especially Anana’s former keepers, are stunned and devastated by the news of her death. She was a little bear with a big personality, and she touched our hearts.
It's unclear if Nuka will remain in the Species Survival Plan program. We're told the SSP will review the case before making a decision.
This story was first reported by Kimberly Craig at WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan.