By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
I am standing by the Northern Shores exhibit at the Denver Zoo, watching media stars Klondike and Snow and thinking: Christ on a crutch, talk about a dysfunctional family.
Klondike and Snow's mother, Ulu, who abandoned them at birth and probably would have eaten them had the bears lived in the wild, stands in her compound, swinging her head repetitively like an autistic child at a subpar daycare center. Next door, Klondike and Snow lie on a cement slab, poolside, sucking on each other's nipples. The throng of human observers leans forward.
"See?" someone says. "They're still exhibiting nursing behavior!"
"Awwwww," say the moms and dads and kids, as the people in the row behind them try to catch a glimpse. It may be ten minutes before they actually get a look at the nine-month-old cubs, but in the meantime, everyone waits patiently in line.
Finally, a tall, heavyset man, red in the face from the heat, emerges into the front row. This is the moment he's been waiting for. He holds up a stuffed Klondike, pressing it against the plate-glass window. The real Klondike spots it immediately, detaches himself from his sister's nipple and attacks, his brand-new claws skittering against the glass.
Approximately twenty yards away, zookeeper Jim Blankenship is performing his daily show, in which a handful of sea lions and harbor seals eat fish, blow kisses, bark commentary and literally jump through hoops. The seals look up at him with limpid eyes, executing perfect rolls. The sea lions, "who are yang to the seals' yin," Blankenship says, jockey for position on artificial rock platforms, sitting grandly with their noses in the air, then slithering effortlessly through the water back to their keeper, barking at him in what sound like complete sentences. Raw fish fly through the air. I love this exhibit, especially now, when it's practically empty--thanks to Klondike and Snow.
Next door is the river otter, whose antics also are largely ignored. What a life! This guy seems to spend his whole day running through a personal woodland or performing brilliant, watery tricks. He is so likable and yet so hip that when my daughter asks me the ultimate commercial question--"Mom, can I have a shirt of him?"--I acquiesce. We walk over to the gift shop--threading through Klondike and Snow crowds for the second time--in search of a shirt picturing the otter.
Ha. This store is loaded for bear, and I don't mean bears of color. White supremacy reigns. You can buy Klondike and Snow stuffed in umpteen sizes, in sportswear and party accoutrements (see sidebar, right). We find one very small stuffed otter selling for $4.95. The shop even shortchanges Emma, the beautiful and slightly bewildered-looking baby hippopotamus who was born August 8. Although hippo paraphernalia would seem a sure crowd-pleaser, the ratio of Emma souvenirs to bear essentials is something like 1 to 25.
Even though Klondike and Snow are scheduled to be shipped off to Florida any week now, where they will be a featured attraction at Orlando's Sea World, the polar bears' popularity shows no signs of abating. Last week Klondike and Snow supporters--two of them in bear suits--ventured into City Hall, where they presented Deputy Mayor Fidel "Butch" Montoya, elevated from his public-safety job in Wellington Webb's absence, with petitions signed by 10,000 people demanding that the bears stay in Denver. How can we sit by and let the zoo send them to Florida? they whined. After all, it was the zoo, aided and abetted by the media--particularly Channel 4, which sells its own Klondike and Snow videotape and has already contracted with an Orlando family to keep us posted on the bears' doings--that "made us love them."
I view this campaign with alarm, having just finished reading a novel in which adult polar bears get together in Churchill, Alaska, and lay waste to everything they come across, including three human explorers, two mattresses and one entire Land Rover, antifreeze and all. The novel is based on true accounts. For most of their lives, it would appear, polar bears are lone and majestic, not cute and cuddly. And that phase is quickly melting away for Klondike and Snow.
But fans are not deterred by these bear facts. One suggests an investigation into the zoo's "dirty little tactics." Another sees printing "Save Our Bears" bumper stickers as a public duty. And would it be too extravagant to turn over one entire used airport to a pair of polar cubs? Apparently not, because that's what the Zoo Two: Save Our Bears Foundation wants for Stapleton.
"Oh, you mean the SOBs, as in Save Our Bears," says zoo director Clayton Freiheit, who has had one long, hot summer of it, what with dealing with all the protest calls and Mayor Wellington Webb insisting that he "carefully consider every alternative" to sending the bears away. In the zoo's hundred-year history--it celebrates its centennial next year--there has never been such controversy. There have never been stars like Klondike and Snow, either.