Opening of zoo's Polar Passage nears
Polar bear Nora has returned to the Oregon Zoo, and it's only a matter of time before visitors get to see her in the new Polar Passage habitat.
The $19 million Polar Passage will open in April. Nora, 5, recently returned to the Oregon Zoo from Utah's Hogle Zoo. Zoo officials are waiting for the habitat's grass to grow to a healthy length.
"People are eager to see her, we're excited to see how she likes it," said Amy Cutting, who oversees the zoo's North America section.
Nora is considered a full-grown female but is petite — about 375 pounds, Cutting said. Female bears can be 500 or 600 pounds.
And, there'll be plenty of space for her at Polar Passage, at least until another polar bear, likely another female, comes to the Oregon Zoo.
Natural terrain, large shade structures, piles of ice and deep saltwater pools are part of the habitat.
"This exhibit was built largely with her and other bears here in the past in mind; what worked well and what she would enjoy," Cutting said. "There is plenty of evidence that polar bears like to get high and look around. We spent extra money to do saltwater in the exhibit — it's expensive to do that — and make everything stainless steel. It's good for skin and hair. There was saltwater at Hogle and Nora looks fantastic."
And, the turf is a soft substrate. Before, it was concrete, she added. There's also a digging pit.
"There is a lot of space where she can make choices about what she wants to do," Cutting said. "We want them to determine their own day."
Visitors will benefit by having a bigger observation area.
"People will be excited about a lot of the views," Cutting said. "You can see polar bears from the boardwalk. There's much more open area. It's quite open and spacious, a lot of different encounter moments."
Polar bears remain one of the most popular zoo animals, and they deserve the best environment in which to live.
"Polar bears are similar to elephants," Cutting said. "If you're going to do it, do it right. Some zoos have opted out of polar bears — $19 million (for a habitat) is a lot. I'm super proud of this community and zoo for investing the way they have in polar bears."
The number of polar bears in the wild remains strong across five countries (including the United States and Canada), but the effect of climate change on Arctic sea ice, and polar bears' ability to hunt seals, cannot be underestimated, Cutting added. The bear is listed as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
It's been a nearly three-year construction project.
Polar Passage is one of eight major projects made possible by the community-supported zoo bond measure passed in 2008. The final three projects — improved habitats for primates, rhinos and polar bears — are all set to open this year.
About 40% of the Oregon Zoo campus has been transformed through the various projects.
Many of the new features at Polar Passage were made possible through the Oregon Zoo Foundation's $8.5 million Heart of the Oregon Zoo campaign, which currently is raising funds to support the zoo's efforts in advancing animal welfare, conservation and education.
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