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Nanuq quietly moves into Buffalo Zoo Polar bear arrives from Wisconsin to revive breeding effort

Nanuq the polar bear is in town, and though the public will not see him for a while, the Buffalo Zoo wants it known that he is getting the best care any zoo could provide.

The 21-year-old bear arrived by truck over the weekend from the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., to begin a breeding loan that will pair him with Anana, Buffalo's 8-year-old female.

Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes says the move amounts to vindication for the zoo, which came under attack from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2007, after six of its polar bears died over a six-year period.

The animal rights organization cited a preliminary report from a U.S. Agriculture Department inspector suggesting the zoo had been negligent in its care of the collection, which produced 11 cubs over 20 years before the breeding program was suspended in 1997 because the captive population had almost too many Buffalo-born animals.

The zoo fired back, declaring that its animals receive top-notch care and that all six bears had died of natural causes.

After the zoo challenged the Agriculture Department inspector's findings, which Fernandes suspects were based on misinformation supplied by disgruntled former zoo workers, the agency assigned two investigators to the case.

"They talked to a number of our employees," Fernandes said. "They also went through all the pathology and necropsy reports [on the polar bear deaths], the veterinary records and the histories of the animals for the entire time they were here.

"They also talked to our colleagues around the country about our management of polar bears."

The investigators reported their findings to department headquarters in Washington, D.C., but Fernandes did not learn that the zoo had been absolved in the polar bear deaths until the breeding loan with the Wisconsin zoo was negotiated in recent weeks.

During the 15 months since the controversy erupted, "We never received any citations, written warnings or penalties regarding our polar bear husbandry or veterinary care," she said.

When Fernandes called to inform the agency that a new polar bear was on the way, an official told her the follow-up investigation had "found nothing worth citing" about the way bears are handled here and that the agency "has no problem with Buffalo."

The Agriculture Department apparently does not make the final results of investigations public -- even when, as in this instance, that would set the record straight on a faulty report that was used to wrongly challenge the zoo's professionalism, Fernandes said.

"I wish we could get something in writing from them," she said.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommended Nanuq's transfer to Buffalo to help maintain a stable and genetically diverse population of captive polar bears.

Born in the wild and rescued as an orphan along with his twin brother, Nanuq never sired cubs in Madison despite being housed with a female. Because his genes are considered valuable to the cause, officials of both zoos hope that romance blossoms and that he and Anana will re-energize Buffalo's once-prolific polar bear breeding program.

As is customary, Nanuq will spend his first weeks here in quarantine, getting to know his new surroundings, before he is introduced to the public -- and Anana.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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