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Saint Louis Zoo Shows Off Plans For Its New Polar Bear Exhibit

The Saint Louis Zoo is forging ahead with building a new, state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit.

The 40,000-square-foot McDonnell Polar Bear Point will more than double the zoo’s previous polar bear habitat, which closed in 2009.

Features of the exhibit will include:

  • A 22-foot viewing window for visitors to view polar bears up close
  • A 1,000-square-foot Arctic cave room with a four-panel viewing wall
  • A 50,000 gallon saltwater pool
  • A Bear Interaction Area where visitors will be able to observe zoo keepers training and interacting with polar bears
  • A new gift shop featuring bear-themed items

Saint Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner said the exhibit will allow the zoo to breed and protect endangered polar bears.
“We’re here to conserve animals and their habitats through animal management, through research, and through educational programs,” Bonner said. “This exhibit is going to do all of those things."

Bonner says there are only 76 polar bears left in U.S. zoos, down from 200 a couple decades ago.

And he says the loss of sea ice from climate change is threatening wild bear populations.

“We’re finding thinner bears, we’re finding bears with lower reproductive rates, we’re finding higher death rates, we’re even finding cannibalism among bears,” Bonner said.

Bonner says the Saint Louis Zoo hopes to have its polar bears breed to help build up the captive population and increase its genetic diversity.

"It's going to be an iconic exhibit," Bonner said. "I predict the most popular exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo."

But the zoo has had some problems keeping its polar bears healthy in the past.

In 2005, two of the zoo's polar bears died within a few months of one another, leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine the zoo for violating the Animal Welfare Act. A third bear developed a liver tumor and was euthanized in 2009.

The zoo’s curator of carnivores, Steve Bircher, says zoo veterinarians did everything they could for the bears.

“If the same situation came up again, we would not have changed the way we move forward with managing those animals, and the veterinary care that those animals received," Bircher said.

Bircher says the zoo kept polar bears for more than 80 years and has an excellent track record with them.

He says the new polar bear habitat could accommodate a breeding pair of adults and their offspring. The $15 million exhibit is scheduled to open in the Spring of 2015.

Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience 

Follow Kate Essig on Twitter: @KateEssig