KANSAS CITY, Mo. —It was a gamble — building a polar bear exhibit before they had any of the coveted animals — but it paid off for the Kansas City Zoo.
The zoo has learned it will receive a polar bear in time for the opening of a new exhibit next spring.
That's a relief to general curator Liz Harmon, who had remained optimistic.
"I've been working on this for many years," she said this week. "We've been telling them (the conservation community) we're going to open a polar bear exhibit and we're going to need a bear."
There are only 81 polar bears in captivity in North America and the zoo community does not just hand them out. Kansas City hasn't had one since 1990.
Zoo director Randy Wisthoff was prepared to switch to brown bears or black bears if absolutely necessary. The public loves bears, period. But experience has shown that zoo visitors are particularly fascinated with polar bears, the largest of all bears.
Just ask the Memphis Zoo. It introduced two giant pandas in 2003, but it was not until it opened a new exhibit that included polar bears three years later that the zoo passed 1 million annual visitors. The Kansas City Zoo recently reached half that but has high hopes for a boost from a polar bear.
Under the current plan, Kansas City will receive a male polar bear, Nikita, on loan from the Toledo Zoo, where he was born. He is about 3 years old and already weighs about 580 pounds.
Kansas City's new exhibit is designed to accommodate up to three bears, but for the time being at least this bear will have deluxe quarters and more than 9,500 square feet all to himself. The construction contract is $7.85 million, and the whole project is about $10 million, paid for with bonds approved by Kansas City voters in 2004.
The placement of polar bears is guided by a species survival plan. Polar bears' Arctic sea ice habitat is melting, and they are officially listed as threatened. The survival plan seeks to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible in zoos.
Kansas City's bear may be scheduled for mating at some point, but he won't reach breeding age for a year or two. The new exhibit includes a cubbing den for that possibility.
Other than during the breeding season, male polar bears are solitary in the wild. According to the conservation group Polar Bears International, 26 zoos around the world have just one polar bear.
But there is some competition among zoos for even a single animal. In North America, new polar bear exhibits are also under construction in Columbus, Ohio; St. Paul; and Louisville, Ky.; and one is planned in Salt Lake City. Another is being renovated in Providence, R.I., and one just opened this year in Toronto.
Harmon said the availability of polar bears, like other species, varies.
"Some years you have lots of young, and some years you don't have any," she said.
Because Kansas City's exhibit will be new, it will conform to the latest in animal husbandry guidelines for the species, including standards set by the Canadian province of Manitoba, which has one of the largest polar bear populations.
It will be a year-round exhibit with an enclosed viewing area. The main pool will hold 140,000 gallons and offer a chance to see the bear underwater. The water will be chilled in summer to 65 degrees.
The exhibit was designed by PGAV Architects and is being built by Barsto Construction.
Harmon said the zoo will use the new exhibit as an opportunity to raise awareness of the polar bear's loss of habitat.
"We're really excited to have a bear coming," she said. "I think people will love him, and he'll be a good educational tool, as well."