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Passion and polar bears Zoo checks out male in Wisconsin as mate for its sole specimen

The Buffalo Zoo's once-robust polar bear family, depleted in recent years by the loss of six animals because of health problems, may be about to stage a comeback.

Much depends on Nanuq, a 21-year-old male expected to be imported from the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., to breed with 8-year-old Anana, currently the only occupant of Buffalo's polar bear exhibit.

The breeding loan announced Monday by the Wisconsin Zoo is part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums plan designed to maintain a stable and healthy captive population of polar bears.

The only questions seem to be whether this Nanuq of the north is fit to make the 700-mile journey by truck and, if he is, whether he will turn out to be Anana's type.

Kurt Volle, zoo veterinarian, soon will travel to Madison to examine the potential suitor, who is rather old for a captive polar bear. Their average life span is 18 years.

"We want to make sure his heart is OK," zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said. The zoo is taking a cautious approach because a half-dozen members of its polar bear clan died between 2001 and 2007, including three in the last 16 months of that period.

Even if Nanuq is deemed well enough to travel, will he and Anana hit it off? He never has sired cubs despite being housed with a female at the Henry Vilas Zoo. But as zoo professionals know, when it comes to breeding, past failure does not necessarily point to future flops. Consider Rich, a lowland gorilla who became a father in December in the San Francisco Zoo after batting zero for 18 years in Buffalo.

"It would be wonderful if [Nanuq and Anana] could produce a cub and help secure their species' future," Fernandes said.

The zoo association had suspended Buffalo's highly successful polar bear breeding program 10 years ago because zoos already contained almost too many of its offspring. Genetic diversity is a priority in any species survival plan.

Then came the confounding run of deaths, followed by a preliminary Agriculture Department report inferring that neglect might have been a factor. That sparked criticism from
animal rights activists, which the zoo vigorously rejected.

A year ago, the zoo board turned down the planned loan of male polar bear twins from the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minn., after the Como Zoo requested upgrades to Buffalo's outdated bear exhibit that would have cost $30,000 to $60,000.

Neither of the Minnesota bears, which would have remained here while their home exhibit was refurbished, was expected to breed with Anana.

A new polar bear exhibit, replacing the Depression-era bear pits, will be built during the next phase of the Buffalo Zoo's ongoing $75 million reconstruction program.


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