More than a month before they were due, three polar bear cubs slipped into the world of the Toronto Zoo. Aurora, the new mother, turned on them, devouring one and injuring the others before zoo staff could intervene. One of the survivors died. The last is being nursed by staff.
Aurora started her life as an orphan, her mother shot by a hunter. She and her twin, Nikita, were found in 2001 in Ontario’s Polar Bear Provincial Park and have spent the last decade in captivity.
From 2002 to 2009 they lived in polar habitat in northern Ontario. When the zoo completed a large enough enclosure for them, they were transferred back.
University of British Columbia zoologist Wayne Goodey said the stress of captivity may have contributed to the attack. Lab rats and mice in stressful situations sometimes eat their young. Goodney is not aware of a polar bear mother in the wild eating her cubs, though male bears in need of food sometimes do.
As horrifying as it sounds, Aurora’s act may have been a natural response to cubs with little chance of survival. Polar bears generally give birth in late November or December. These were born October 11th. While the cubs may have looked viable to onlookers, Aurora may have detected weakness or abnormality. Our non-human neighbors make decisions about newborns differently. Nurturing young unlikely to reach maturity is an emotional decision only we humans have the resources to make.
In 2006, twin bear cubs were born at the Berlin Zoological Garden. Their mother rejected them, and one died four days after birth. The little survivor was kept in an incubator for 44 days and then bottle fed. Zoo visitors were delighted with baby Knut, but at the age of four he had a spasm and drowned. The brain problems that killed him were likely present at birth and worsened over time.
Whatever the case for Aurora and her three cubs, the mother is doing fine. So is the one surviving cub, at least for now.
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Photo from sly06 via Flickr Creative Commons