Zoo story: Is she or isn't she?

November 06, 2006|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

It's sort of like the guessing game that plays out weekly in the celebrity tabloids. Have they just gained a few pounds, or is Britney, Gwyneth or J.Lo sporting a baby bump?

But in this case, the possible mom-to-be doesn't have the trim waist of most starlets or much of a Hollywood following. She's close to 700 pounds and has a thick coat of honey-kissed white hair. And her fans are mostly limited to Charm City.

Alaska, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's only female polar bear, might deliver a pair of cubs in December or January, hopeful zoo officials say. Or she might not.

There's no pregnancy test for polar bears. And the gestation period is tricky: A female bear can carry an embryo for months, but with the least bit of stress, she can lose the pregnancy. So now, all zoo officials and her adoring public can do is wait, as Alaska remains holed up in one of the zoo's breeding dens.

"With a polar bear, it's hard" to tell, says Tanya White, one of Alaska's keepers. "She's 700 pounds. The cubs are 12 ounces. She's not putting on baby weight. It's not like you'll see a bulge in her stomach."

For Alaska's keepers, the possibility of a pregnancy emerged in the spring, when she mated with her male counterpart Magnet at the zoo in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park.

And mated. And mated some more. Some days Alaska barely had a chance to eat or take a dip in the pool without Magnet making advances.

"Where's Alaska?" is a question familiar to the polar bear keepers.

"She's in the breeding den," White says. "Their ears just turn off. `Oh, she's pregnant!' And you're like, `No!'"

Zoo officials have been careful, they say, about letting pregnancy talk among the general public get ahead of itself. They wouldn't want to disappoint Alaska's and Magnet's legions of fans with perceived promises of tiny babies the size of a "stick of butter," White says.

A similar scenario played out at the National Zoo in Washington, when breeders waited in vain for a pair of pandas to produce a cub. In July 2005, after a several months-long "panda watch," a baby arrived to much fanfare. The cub is now one of that zoo's most popular attractions.

Zoo officials have posted a sign outside the polar bear exhibit to help explain.

"This time of year female polar bears begin preparing to den up. Our resident female polar bear, `Alaska,' is no different. ... Please excuse her if she has decided to stay inside today."

Diana Lang, visiting from Puerto Rico, was perfectly satisfied with snapping pictures of Magnet on her disposable camera -- until she heard about the possibility of cubs.

The 13-year-old says she "fell in love" with polar bears after watching the 1996 movie Alaska.

"If the baby's a girl, what's going to be her name?" she shrieks, pulling on her mother's arm.

Satisfying the public's curiosity without causing "polar pandemonium" can be a conundrum for zoo officials, as polar bear pregnancies are a complicated process.

Typically, after an egg is fertilized, it floats around in the bear's uterus for four months or longer in a process called delayed implantation, says Colleen Baird, supervisor of the polar bear exhibit at the zoo. Under any adverse circumstances, the embryo can be reabsorbed into the mother's body and no cub will be born.

When polar bears are pregnant, Baird said, it's usually with twins.

Zoo officials are hoping to avoid the disappointments of recent years. In 2004 and 2005, Alaska and Magnet mated, but no cubs materialized.

Earlier this year, keepers removed a posting at the exhibit that hinted, "maybe, just maybe ..."

"People jump to the conclusion," explains another of the bears' keepers, Becky Lynagh. "Last year we had the entire concession staff down here saying, `Oh, the polar bear's pregnant.'"

So this time, the bears' keepers are trying their best to remain "cautiously optimistic," Baird says.

But alone in the confines of the tundra buggy that slices through the exhibit, those closest to the bears can barely contain their excitement.

"It would be great to have cubs," Lynagh says.

"She has to have two," White says.

"So we can each have one," Lynagh says.

"Well, we can share," White says.

They monitor Alaska incessantly on a computer screen in their office, which is linked to a pair of infrared surveillance cameras monitoring the bear in her den. And they keep logs of her activity.

She mostly sleeps in the pitch-black den lined with straw, they say, except to receive a meal of mackerel (with the heads cut off, her preference) and some of her favorite greens, such as kale, squash and cucumbers. They only interact with her through a mesh screen leading to the den.

Meanwhile, Magnet, hardly the involved dad-to-be, sleeps on a rock in the outside exhibit most of the time. Almost oblivious to the potential excitement, he hasn't seen Alaska since she was whisked off to the den the last week in August.

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