While most polar bears live only to their mid-20s, Boris recently celebrated his 34th birthday, meaning he’s probably the oldest male polar bear on the planet, and he’s living out his best retirement years at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium after living treacherously with a traveling circus.
At 11:01 a.m. on an unseasonably warm morning, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium staff biologist Cindy Roberts exited the “backstage” area of the zoo’s polar bear exhibit and arrived moments later in the public viewing area for her two furry, white charges.
“My name is Cindy, I’m a staff biologist, and I’m lucky enough to work with our two polar bears,” Roberts said with an energetic smile as she addressed the families that had accumulated in front of the exhibit.
“We have Blizzard, who is our younger bear; he is going to be 24 years old,” Roberts continued. “And we also have Boris, who is our really old bear; he (turned) 34 on Dec. 15th.”
Blizzard was standing just beyond the exhibit’s saltwater pool. Elsewhere, hidden from the view of the crowd, Boris lounged indoors with his hind legs spread straight out behind him as he laid on the floor and pawed languidly at an “ice treat” — fillets of salmon in a block of ice — in front of him.
The 873-pound-bear is perfectly content, and despite some common elderly issues — skin and liver problems, arthritis, and bad teeth from years of mistreatment — he’s living a happy, healthy life.
Prior to coming to Point Defiance in the early aughts, Boris lived a storied life with two circus productions. He was born in a German zoo in the mid-1980s, and at 18 months old, started performing with Ursula Böttcher, one of the most celebrated female animal trainers in the world, who was particularly famous for performances with polar bears.
“She took care of those bears very well for that time period,” Roberts said of the research she’d done on Böttcher and her act. “If she thought anyone was harming them in any way, she would fire them instantly.”
However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989, the state-run East German circus that effectively owned Boris began to be phased out, and by the late 1990s, the bears had been sold. Some remained in Europe, but most were sold to the Suarez Brothers Circus in Mexico.
The Suarez Brothers badly mistreated the bears, feeding them a feeble diet of bread and lettuce and housing them in small cages without room to swim or cool off. The bears were eventually seized by American authorities after the zoo traveled to Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory.
A YouTube video taken around the time of the bears’ seizure shows the massive mammals crammed into small cages atop a trailer. The bears were panting, drooling, and swaying side to side in an attempt to cool themselves.
“Our vet at the time, Dr. Holly Reed — she has since passed away — she actually transported the bears to the U.S., and they were in pretty bad shape,” Roberts said. “We got Boris and Kenny … the other bears went to Baltimore, Detroit, and North Carolina.”
Though Roberts was not at the zoo when Boris arrived, she has now worked with him for more than a decade, and he holds a special place in her heart.
“He’s just an amazing animal because of his history,” she said. “I think not only does (his story) give us all passion for polar bears in general, but it gives us hope in facing challenges and getting to the other side where you get salmon treats and you don’t have to go outside.”
Boris by the numbers
Born: Dec. 15, 1985
Weight: 873 pounds
Height: 5 feet
Diet: Raw ground meat, fish, beef fat, and specially formulated kibble
Pounds of food per day: 7.5 to 21
Medication: 134 pills a day
Fun fact: He was the first polar bear to receive a stem cell transplant, to help lessen the effects of his arthritis.
Save the date
Interested in learning about how to help polar bears like Boris live long, healthy lives? Consider attending the zoo’s annual Party for Polar Bears, presented by the Point Defiance Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers from 5 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 27, at Dystopian State Brewing in Tacoma. More information here.