City zoo throws housewarming for polar bear couple

$7 million site to allow close viewing from Tundra Buggy

Family: events, activities

October 09, 2003|By Lori Sears | Lori Sears,SUN STAFF

Magnet and Alaska are ready for their housewarming. Yes, the Baltimore Zoo's polar bear duo is ready to welcome visitors to their humble new abode at the exhibit Polar Bear Watch, which opens Saturday.

The $7 million project, the zoo's first major addition in nearly 10 years, is more of an Arctic adventure than a zoo exhibit.

"It's really different. This is big, big time. It's different than any of the other exhibits we've ever done," says Ben Gross, public relations manager of the Baltimore Zoo. "It's set up like a travelogue from Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world."

Visitors can watch the polar bears swim in two pools, climb rocks, play in the dirt and roam on the grass. There will be underwater and above-ground views of the bears. And visitors can safely get up-close and personal and watch the bears from the Tundra Buggy, a 57-foot- long, 12-foot-high, 25-ton, climate-controlled observation vehicle.

"Call it a Hummer on steroids or an Arctic monster truck," Gross says of the Tundra Buggy, the only such vehicle in the United States. It was created by the zoo, Polar Bears International and Tundra Buggy Tours.

New animal neighbors, including snowy owls, arctic foxes and ravens, will join Magnet and Alaska at Polar Bear Watch.

Throughout the exhibit, visitors can learn interesting facts about polar bears and see an amazingly large life-sized bronze sculpture of a polar bear created by Bart Walter.

Among the highlights of the exhibit is the Polar Cam. Zoo visitors will see live moving images of polar bears in the wild, taken from a Tundra Buggy in Churchill and transmitted over the Web. Visitors can compare Magnet and Alaska's behavior to that of the wild Canadian polar bears.

Researchers and scientists work out of this Churchill Tundra Buggy Learning Lab, studying polar bears and taking part in an "Adventure Learning Program." Students from Churchill, Winnipeg, Chicago and Baltimore are involved in interactive classes on the bears and the sub-Arctic, via the Polar Cam.

Opening weekend events in celebration of Polar Bear Watch include giveaways, scavenger hunts, animal presentations (such as Keeper Encounters) and more.

On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., MIX 106.5 morning radio-show personalities JoJo and Kenny will be giving away prizes to those brave enough to dive into the old Polar Bear pool and find marked snowballs. Cost is $50 per participant, with proceeds benefiting the new zoo exhibit.

On Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., visitors can enjoy family activities and see a variety of zoo animals not often out for public view, such as endangered birds, a Flemish Giant (large rabbit), porcupine and skunk.

And, of course, there'll be plenty of time to see the polar bear couple. Magnet, the 1,000-pound, 14-year-old male, was reared at the Toledo Zoo and got his name from having never left his mother's side as a cub. His companion, Alaska, is a 575-pound, 10-year-old female who was liberated from a circus after being mistreated. She arrived at the zoo last March. The pair enjoys playing, swimming, wrestling, napping and eating.

"Our goal ... is to give everyone a better understanding and appreciation for wildlife and wild places," says Billie Grieb, zoo president.

Polar Bear Watch opens Saturday at the Baltimore Zoo, Druid Hill Park. Regular zoo hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Admission is $11; $9 seniors; $7 ages 2-11; free for ages under 2. Call 410-366-LION or visit www.baltimorezoo.org for more information.

For more family events, see Page 45.

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