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Klondike and Snow: when these cubs were born, their keepers had to become polar bear parents.

Outside a polar bear den at the Denver Zoo, two tiny cubs lay on the cold floor. Zookeepers found them there just hours after they had been born and abandoned by their mother.

The cubs were so chilled that thermometers did not show any body warmth at all. On that day, November 6, 1994, the zoo began its fight to save the twin cubs, Klondike and Snow.

The birth of the cubs was a surprise. The zookeepers thought they might see baby polar bears someday because the mother, Ulu, had mated with another polar bear about a year before.

But Ulu was not acting like a mother-to-be. "In the wild, polar bears about to give birth will den up," says Dr. David Kenny, senior veterinarian at the zoo.

"They'll begin to dig in, become withdrawn, and claw out a den of hard-packed snow or ice," he says. "There are usually two room -- one for the mother and one to serve as a playroom for the cubs."

Ulu didn't have snow for digging at her zoo home. Instead, she had a dark, quiet room where she could arrange straw and dirt to prepare for birth. But she didn't seem interested.

Ulu didn't fatten up either. Usually, the body of a female polar bear will not let her eggs develop until her body has built up a large store of fat.

The fat is an important sign to the mother's body that there is enough food to give the cubs a good chance to survive. Ulu broke this rule, too. She never gained weight.

Even so, she gave birth to two cubs. But Ulu was too young. Like many young polar bear mothers in the wild, she was not ready to take care of her babies. She put them outside the den.

Substitute Mothers

"I wasn't sure they'd last the night," Dr. Kenny says. But he knew that someone would have to take Ulu's place. That job belonged to him and his staff, veterinary assistants Cindy Bickel and Denny Roling.

Making the cubs warm was the first challenge. Because polar bear cubs are tiny and blind at birth, they depend on their mothers for everything, including warmth.

"Until you hold one in the palm of your hand, you don't realize how tiny they are," Cindy says.

The cubs' first home was a warming case called an incubator. The zookeepers used a type of incubator that is made for keeping newborn babies warm in hospitals. They lined the inside with fluffy white fleece for Snow and Klondike. Over the next few hours, the keepers warmed the cubs to the healthy temperature of eighty-six degrees.

As the cubs started to feel better, they did what human babies do so well: they cried. Now that they were warm, Klondike and Snow were hungry.

The babies' new parents had to make imitation polar bear milk, but no one could tell them how to do it. Dr. Kenny estimates that fewer than a dozen newborn polar bears have been raised in American zoos. So Klondike and Snow's caretakers had to develop a polar bear formula of their own, with only a few suggestions from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

They mixed a puppy formula with cow's milk, cream, vitamins, minerals, and cod liver oil. The twins guzzled the formula from baby bottles and began feeding every two hours.

Sleeping Over

New babies need round-the-clock attention. So when the polar bear experts went home, Snow, Klondike, and their incubator went home, too. The cubs no longer needed the incubator for warmth. But the bears still liked to sleep in it.

"We took turns, each of us taking a night every three evenings," says Dr. Kenny. No one person could have cared for the cubs every night because that person wouldn't have had any sleep. The bears woke up crying about every fifteen minutes.

At home, each babysitter slept on the floor by the incubator. "It wasn't long before I figured out how to put my hand inside the incubator, even in my sleep, so they could suck on my fingers for comfort," Cindy says.

To her surprise, in a matter of days, the babies began to purr as they sucked on her fingers. The sound was more like a small motor than a kitten's purr.

By the time Snow and Klondike were a month old, their eyes opened and they woke up ready to play.

"They wanted to climb out of the incubator and crawl in the sleeping bags with us," Denny says.

But baby polar bears that feed every two hours also wet almost as often. "I wasn't real fond of their wetting the sleeping bag with me in it," Denny says.

He arranged for Snow and Klondike to share a sleeping bag. When they outgrew the incubator, they simply used the sleeping bag at night. "I really think the sleeping bag felt close and secure -- like a den," he says.

After three months, Snow and Klondike were big enough to sleep in the zoo nursery. Dr. Kenny. Cindy, and Denny slept over now and then, just for fun.

But the caretakers' daytime duties were far from over. The Denver Zoo staff had to teach Snow and Klondike everything their mother would normally teach them. Those lessons included how to drink safely.

I had read articles about young animals drowning or taking in too much water as they drank." Cindy says. The team taught the cubs how to drink by giving them large blocks of ice. The cubs learned to lap up water slowly as the ice melted.


In time, ice became one of Klondike and Snow's favorite toys. After their fur grew thick, they often became hot. And what could be more refreshing for an overheated polar bear than sliding spread-eagle across a huge slab of ice?

"They would play like that for hours," Denny says. "They also loved to crawl inside a plastic garbage can. And they loved toy balls, especially after the balls deflated a little so they could hold them in their mouths."

"And peekaboo," Cindy says. "Like a human baby, they liked playing peekaboo with their blankets."

Snow and Klondike followed the three Denver Zoo caretakers wherever they went. The cubs ran to them when they were frightened or unsure and played with them for hours at a time.

Wild Streak

But cute little cubs grow into big wild animals. Adult polar bears can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. Klondike and Snow cared for their new mothers, but the bears' instincts sometimes turned ferocious.

Just after the cubs turned eight month; old, Cindy was feeding Klondike with a bottle while Dr. Kenny and Denny examined Snow. Baby Klondike finished his snack before Snow's checkup was done. Klondike -- all 155 pounds of him -- wanted more.

The hungry cub snarled and demanded more milk. He trapped Cindy in a corner.

"We usually carried an extra bottle, just in case something like this happened," Cindy says. But this time Denny had the spare bottle, and he was busy with Snow. Soon, Denny and Dr. Kenny saw what was happening and tossed the bottle to one side of Klondike. The bear scampered after the bottle, and Cindy escaped.

Klondike didn't really want to hurt Cindy, Dr. Kenny says. The bear probably didn't even realize he was dangerous. But after that frightening moment, one thing was clear: it was time for Snow and Klondike to have a place of their own.

A special enclosure was made in the zoo for the polar bears, and Dr. Kenny, Cindy, and Denny walked the bears to their new home. The caretakers had done their job well -- and made polar bear history along the way.
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Title Annotation:born in the Denver Zoo, CO, Nov. 6, 1994
Author:Halls, Kelly Milner
Publication:Highlights for Children
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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