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One of zoo's polar bears dies

One of the Lake Superior Zoo's signature attractions, Bubba the polar bear, died Wednesday morning, an unexpected development that further piles onto the beloved but already-troubled Duluth city zoo's problems.

One of the Lake Superior Zoo's signature attractions, Bubba the polar bear, died Wednesday morning, an unexpected development that further piles onto the beloved but already-troubled Duluth city zoo's problems.

The cause of the 19-year-old polar bear's death is unknown. Zoo staff members transported Bubba on Wednesday to the University of Minnesota's School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul for a necropsy, said Interim Zoo Director Paul Anderson.

"It is a sad day here at the zoo," said Anita Alberding, marketing director for the Lake Superior Zoological Society, which runs much of the zoo. "We're all just absolutely devastated by the loss of Bubba. His presence will be truly missed."

Zoological Society Executive Director Sam Maida said they haven't lost such a well-known personality since Bessie the elephant died in the mid-1970s and Mr. Magoo the mongoose died in the 1960s.

After years of shrinking budgets and neglected facilities, 2007 has been full of bad news for the zoo.

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Last fall, the zoo lost its Association of Zoos and

Aquariums accreditation, then its director after only eight months on the job. And now without the AZA accreditation, the zoo will not be able to get another polar bear, Anderson said.

Zoo officials have said they expect it will take at least two years to complete a plan for more than $7 million in much-needed capital improvements. The zoo's laundry list includes a new water filtration system for Polar Shores, where Bubba lived with Berlin, a female polar bear.

At the behest of a private consultant, Mayor Herb Bergson's administration has discussed having the nonprofit society assume complete control of the zoo from the city to save on employee wages and benefits.

"A lot of things are in question right now, and we don't want to see anything [drastic] happen because of one incident," Anderson said.

Anderson said while the system is old, it had been undergoing repairs. The water quality was tested daily and "very adequate," he said.

"It's hard to know what happened," Alberding said of Bubba's death. "He could have swallowed something that someone threw in the exhibit."

Not feeling well

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Bubba had been suffering from a mouth wound for the past 10 days. It appeared to have healed. However, he became listless and uninterested in eating on Monday, Anderson said.

Zoo veterinarian Dr. Louise Beyea came in each morning to check on Bubba, and a keeper was with him outside his air-conditioned den almost constantly. Bubba's right side was swollen, and he was scheduled to be anaesthetized Friday for a thorough exam.

However, after the zookeeper returned from his Wednesday rounds after a half hour, he found the bear near death at about 10:30 a.m., Anderson said. The veterinarian also arrived and Bubba passed away less than an hour later.

Polar bears can live in captivity up to 45 years, said Anderson, who also cared for Bubba for years as a zookeeper. He remembered that Bubba survived a thyroid problem about eight years ago, but thought he had pulled out of it completely.

Many of the keepers and volunteers were obviously upset about the death, he said. They called the keepers at home who weren't working Wednesday so they wouldn't hear about it in the media first, Anderson said.

"You get very attached," he said. "It's like a dog or cat that lived for 15 or 20 years. Or your favorite pet from childhood dying. You remember exactly where you were when you found out."

It is not uncommon for keepers to go home and cry after a longtime zoo animal under their care dies, Anderson said.

"But we'll get over it, like we always do," Anderson said.

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Bubba's playmate, Berlin, and appeared to be doing well, said Parks and Recreation Department acting director, Kathy Bergen. But they will closely monitor Berlin for loneliness, she said.

Alberding said they are planning more activities with Berlin, who also is 19 years old and who also came to the zoo in 1990. The two were not related and not mates.

Bubba was the much more dominant and active animal of the pair, and thus more popular, zoo staff said. He was the real swimmer, who with the help of zoo volunteers, would relentlessly play with giant inflatable balls.

"We have still have lots to offer, and we must keep moving forward," Maida said. "But it is a severe loss."

Maida said they will probably plan a public celebration of Bubba's life for the near future.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at

chamilton@duluthnews.com .

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