At 11:01 a.m. on an unseasonably warm morning, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium staff biologist Cindy Roberts exited the “backstage” area of the zoo’s polar bear exhibit, locking the imposing steel doors behind her with a hefty metal padlock.
She turned on her heels and took off at a hurried pace as she adjusted her zoo-branded fleece with its polar bear-adorned logo, arriving moments later in the public viewing area for her two furry, white charges.
“My name is Cindy, I’m a staff biologist, and I’m lucky enough to work with our two polar bears,” Roberts said with an energetic smile as she addressed the families that had accumulated in front of the massive window abutting the exhibit.
“We have Blizzard, who is our younger bear; he is going to be 24 years old,” Roberts continued. “And we also have Boris, who is our really old bear; he (turned) 34 on Dec. 15th.”
Parents hoisted their toddlers up and excitedly whispered about the short, stout bear known as Blizzard standing just beyond the exhibit’s saltwater pool. Elsewhere, hidden from the view of the crowd, Boris lounged indoors with his hind legs spread straight out behind him as he lay on the floor and pawed languidly at the “ice treat” — fillets of salmon in a block of ice — in front of him.
Earlier that morning, Roberts and her team had attempted to coax the 873-pound marine mammal out of his bed of fluffy wood wool with the aforementioned treat for Roberts’ daily 11 a.m. talk. However, Boris, determining that he was not up for being out and about that day, pushed his icy snack back into his bed to enjoy in his temperature-controlled enclosure.
“The average lifespan of a bear is about 25 years,” Roberts continued, as she informed the growing crowd that Boris is likely the oldest known male polar bear on the planet. This, she explained, is even more extraordinary when Boris’ early life is taken into account.
Ursula the Polar Bear Princess and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Following World War II, German-born Ursula Böttcher was one of the most celebrated female animal trainers in the world.
Throughout her career, the diminutive trainer — she stood only 5 feet, 1 inch tall — worked with myriad wild animals, such as Kodiak bears, lions, leopards, and more, but her favorite animals were her polar bears.
By 1967, Ursula’s act included 10 polar bears — usually all on stage with her at the same time — including her favorite bear, Alaska, whom she famously kissed every night to close her show.
Perhaps it was the Latin translation of her name — Ursula comes from ursus, which means bear — or, likely, her proclivity toward polar bears that earned Böttcher the title of Ursula the Polar Bear Princess.
Around the time of Boris’ birth in a German zoo at the end of 1985, Böttcher had just returned from tours in Italy, Munich, and Berlin, and her bears were reaching retirement age. She set out to acquire new performers, and among those was Boris, who began performing at 18 months old.
“She took care of those bears very well for that time period,” Roberts said of the research she’d performed on Böttcher and her act. “If she thought anyone was harming them in any way, she would fire them instantly.”
However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989, the state-run East German circus that effectively owned Boris began to be phased out, and by the late 1990s, the bears had been sold. Some remained in Europe, but most were sold to the Suarez Brothers Circus in Mexico.
Bread, Lettuce, and Cages
Unfortunately, the bears were not as well-cared for as they had been when they had been under Ursula’s charge. By the early aughts, tales of overheated polar bears in a Mexican circus began to trickle into the U.S. from Americans who had traveled to Mexico on holiday.
“They were fed bread and lettuce, occasionally fish, and they lived in small containers,” Roberts recalled from news reports she had seen. The bears reportedly were not given water in which to swim or any manner of air conditioning.
Animals rights groups, accredited zoos, and government agencies across the U.S. rallied and were anxious to get the bears out of Mexico but had no legal grounds to do so. That is, until the circus went on tour.
“The bears and the circus traveled into Puerto Rico, and if you are part of the United States — which Puerto Rico is — you have high marine mammal standards you have to meet under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to house these animals,” Roberts said. “(The circus) wasn’t meeting that, and so the bears were confiscated.”
A YouTube video taken around the time of the bears’ seizure by American authorities shows the massive mammals crammed into small cages atop a trailer. The bears were panting, drooling, and swaying side to side in an attempt to cool themselves.
“Our vet at the time, Dr. Holly Reed — she has since passed away — she actually transported the bears to the U.S., and they were in pretty bad shape,” Roberts said. “We got Boris and Kenny … the other bears went to Baltimore, Detroit, and North Carolina.”
That Sweet Retirement Life
Though Roberts was not at the zoo when Boris arrived, she has now worked with him for more than a decade. And while she has many animals under her care — including penguins, puffins, sea otters, arctic foxes, and more — she said Boris holds a special place in her heart.
“To me, he is a polar bear, but he is a gentle soul,” she said. “He’s just a really beautiful, great creature, and he’s just so special.”
Karen Wolf, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s head veterinarian, agrees. “He’s just a stately old man; I just really love him,” Wolf said. “It’s like working with your grandfather; you want to treat him with respect.”
Like most “grandfathers,” Boris does have some of the same issues that an elderly human might experience. “Polar bears don’t really live that long,” Wolf said, matter-of-factly. “We consider him very geriatric, but he has a very strong will to live.”
Among the list of his ailments, Boris has bad teeth from his years of mistreatment in the Mexican circus, he experiences liver problems, and he suffers from arthritis.
In 2018, thanks to Dr. Valerie Johnson, a veterinarian at Colorado State University, Boris again made headlines, this time as the first polar bear ever to receive a stem cell treatment to help lessen the effects of his arthritis. Wolf reports that Boris “didn’t rebound and become a young bear again” — nor did she expect him to — but that “he seems to be doing well.”
Due to his age and conditions, Boris is monitored on a daily basis to ensure he is comfortable, and the team at Point Defiance sees to it that he takes his medication twice daily — 67 pills in the morning and again in the afternoon, hidden in molasses.
“I’m always fascinated with how they get him to take his medications, because it’s a lot,” Wolf chuckled. “If you give one pill to a dog, you might give 20 to a bear.”
Roberts said Boris is a “good boy” when it comes to taking his pills, and even when getting his blood drawn, which he has been trained to do by putting his massive paw into a large box in one of the imposing metal doors that separates him from his keepers.
The results of the blood work and his recent annual check-up? “I couldn’t find anything wrong with him as far as his blood work looked great, his body condition is good, (and he is) not wasting,” Wolf said.
Going forward, the zoo will continue to monitor Boris, keep him comfortable, and allow him to enjoy his retirement, allowing him to dictate how he spends his days.
“Sometimes you open the door (in the morning), and he just stares at you, or he’ll go back to bed,” Roberts said of Boris’ downtime. “Sometimes he’ll go outside, he’ll turn around, and he’ll go back in. Yesterday, he swam for 40 minutes.”
Wolf said for now, every day with Boris is a gift.
“It’s just like the people who live to be 120; it’s really rare, but it happens,” she shrugged. “I don’t know why he’s rallied, but he seems to be a survivor.”
Roberts attributes Boris’ longevity to just that.
“He’s just an amazing animal because of his history,” she said. “I think not only does he give us all passion for polar bears in general, but it gives us hope in facing challenges and getting to the other side where you get salmon treats and you don’t have to go outside.”
Boris by the numbers
Born: Dec. 15, 1985
Weight: 873 pounds
Height: 5 feet
Diet: Raw ground meat, fish, beef fat, and specially formulated kibble
Pounds of food per day: 7.5 to 21
Medication: 134 pills a day
Fun fact: He was the first polar bear to receive a stem cell transplant, to help lessen the effects of his arthritis.
Save the date
Interested in learning about how to help polar bears like Boris live long, healthy lives? Consider attending the zoo’s annual Party for Polar Bears, presented by the Point Defiance Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers from 5 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 27, at Dystopian State Brewing in Tacoma. More information here.