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Meet Kali, the Saint Louis Zoo's new polar bear

This Saturday, St. Louisans will get their first chance to see the new polar bear at the Saint Louis Zoo.

The 2 1/2 year-old, 850-pound Kali arrived at the zoo in early May, but he has been kept out of sight since then for a health quarantine and to give him time to get used to his new surroundings.

Members of the media got an early look at Kali and the zoo's new polar bear exhibit space on Thursday. Here's St. Louis Public Radio's sneak preview!


Kali swims in his pool at the Saint Louis Zoo, playing with a plastic garbage pail. On land, Kali greets one of his keepers, Julie Hartell Denardo, through the doors of his enclosure. (Video by St. Louis Public Radio's Áine O’Connor)

How did Kali get to St. Louis?

Kali was orphaned in Alaska in March 2013, when an Iñupiat hunter shot his mother. Under federal law it is illegal to kill polar bears, but there is an exception for Alaska’s indigenous peoples who can hunt the bears for food or to make traditional handicrafts.

The hunter turned the cub over to U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists. The Alaskans who initially helped raise the young polar bear named him Kali, the Iñupiat name for their town, known in English as Point Lay.

Before coming to St. Louis, Kali spent two years at the Buffalo Zoo as a companion for a female polar bear cub named Luna.

In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose the Saint Louis Zoo as Kali’s permanent home. He made the day-long journey here via FedEx, first flying from Rochester, NY, to Memphis, Tenn., then riding in a climate-controlled truck to St. Louis.

This site plan shows the layout of McDonnell Polar Bear Point, the new polar bear exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo. It covers 40,000 square feet and cost $16 million to build.
Credit Saint Louis Zoo
This site plan shows the layout of McDonnell Polar Bear Point, the new polar bear exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo. It covers 40,000 square feet and cost $16 million to build.

What do Kali's new digs look like?

The Saint Louis Zoo's new 40,000 square-foot polar bear exhibit cost $16 million to build. It includes a rocky coastline, a 50,000 gallon salt water pool, a sandy beach and an area of grassy "tundra."

Kali plays in his pool at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Credit Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
Kali plays in his pool at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Visitors will be able to see Kali swimming under water through a large glass viewing wall, or watch him on land through a 55-foot-long series of panoramic glass panels.

Two of the panels can slide apart, revealing large metal mesh doors. The zoo's curator of mammals, Steve Bircher, said staff members will train Kali to come up to the doors and demonstrate some behaviors for the public. "The staff will ask the bear to probably stand up, to open its mouth on cue, to present its paws," Bircher said. The exercise is not just for show — having the 850-pound bear learn to obey certain commands makes it possible for the zoo's veterinarians to examine him.

How are polar bears doing in the wild?

Since 2008, polar bears have been listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Climate change is shrinking their sea ice habitat, and scientists estimate that fewer than 25,000 are left worldwide.

Polar bear populations also must contend with pollution of their Arctic environment, potential over-hunting and encroaching human development.

Is Kali the Saint Louis Zoo's first polar bear?

No. According to Bircher, the zoo has a long, successful history with polar bears. “We’ve had polar bears here for close to a hundred years,” Bircher said.

But the zoo’s recent past with polar bears has not gone well. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined the zoo $7,500, claiming it had violated federal animal welfare laws resulting in the death of two polar bears. The zoo disagreed with the agency’s claims but agreed to a settlement to avoid costly litigation.

The Saint Louis Zoo's curator of mammals and carnivores, Steve Bircher, in front of the new McDonnell Polar Bear Point on May 27, 2015.
Credit Áine O’Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
When we interviewed the Saint Louis Zoo's curator of mammals and carnivores, Steve Bircher, in late May, the new polar bear exhibit was still boarded up and closed to the public.

The first bear, a 17-year-old male, died in 2005 after eating plastic bags and cloth. The second, a 20-year-old female, died of an infection five weeks later with two dead fetuses in her uterus. The zoo did not know the bear was pregnant.

The zoo’s last polar bear was euthanized in 2009 after being diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. She was 23 years old, which Bircher said is within the normal life expectancy for a polar bear living in a zoo. Wild polar bears live 15 to 18 years, on average.

Bircher called the deaths of the other two bears “unfortunate,” but said the new polar bear facility is completely different from the zoo’s old polar bear pits, providing a state-of-the-art living environment.

The new enclosure was actually designed to house up to five bears. “We’d love to have an adult pair here,” Bircher said. “And if we do get a recommendation to breed in the future, we’ve designed the facility to be able to accommodate that.” A polar bear’s average litter size is two to three cubs.

Kali greets his visitors.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Kali greets his visitors.

Why keep polar bears in zoos?

In the wild, polar bears can range over thousands of square miles to hunt for food and find mates. Some scientists have argued that animals with large natural ranges — like lions, elephants and polar bears — cannot be kept physically and psychologically healthy in captivity.

Bircher, who has worked at the zoo with large mammals for over 30 years, disagrees. “We see all the same behaviors for our animals here at the zoo, that you see in the wild,” Bircher said. “They mark their territory. They defend their territory. We see the same eating behaviors.”

And in a zoo, animals are fed and given medical care. “For most carnivores, their life expectancy — their longevity — in our zoos is actually longer than it is in the wild,” Bircher said.

In addition to zoos helping to maintain vulnerable species, Bircher said they play an important role in environmental education. “People love polar bears,” Bircher said. “We want people to understand what the polar bear represents." That is, climate change and its impacts. "Polar bears are declining in the wild, and it’s because of the loss of sea ice.”

Bircher said he hopes that visitors will walk away from seeing Kali with a new understanding of the threats facing polar bears — and what they can do to help. “That, yes, there is something that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Extra: Listen to Véronique LaCapra and producer Alex Heuer as they took a brief tour of the Penguin and Puffin Coast, which reopened to the public in March.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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