The Unbearable Saga of Cranbeary and Lee Has a Happy Ending

Cranbeary and Lee in happier times.
Cranbeary and Lee in happier times. Denver Zoo
Last fall, Denver's polar bear fans (and yes, there are many of them) were brokenhearted when the Denver Zoo broke up a popular love match, sending sixteen-year-old Cranbeary to the Alaska Zoo, in hopes that she'd have a better chance at producing a cub with Lyutyik, that zoo's male polar bear, than she had here in Denver with eighteen-year-old Lee during a six-year romance. "They've been put together for each breeding season, without any luck," reported Jake Kubie, the Denver Zoo's director of communications.

Still, was that any reason to break them up? Over 100,000 people signed a petition demanding that the Denver Zoo keep Cranbeary and Lee together. "While Cranbeary is at least being sent to Alaska where polar bears are actually found naturally," the petition pleaded, "she will still be held in captivity, living a sad, stressful life, thousands of miles away from her friend, Lee."

The Denver Zoo was not moved...but the polar bears soon were. "That petition is pretty misguided and misinformed, as much as we appreciate the sentiment," Kubie said at the time. "While this is bittersweet, it's not really a sad event for us. We're doing it for the right reasons...not just for the individual bears, but the betterment of the species. ... We have every reason to believe they'll be in a great position to produce offspring with their new mates in their new homes."

The right reason? Helping to protect the polar bear population, the subject of a Specific Survival Plan, created by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which tracks more than 500 species, and Polar Bears International. Officials with those groups studied all the stats for polar bears in American zoos, and determined that Cranbeary might be better off in Alaska. After all, she was already showing signs of a seven-year-itch by late 2018, noted Kubie, and was "getting pretty agitated with Lee."

After a few solitary months, Cranbeary was introduced to her new mate in January. But while she's been immortalized by the Alaska Zoo's Cranbeary Special Sandwich (sales of which go to supporting the polar bears) and makes frequent appearances on the zoo's blog, so far there has been no blessed event. (You can keep track of the Alaska Zoo's polar bears here.)

Soon after Cranbeary left, Lee was sent to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. But Denver's sacrifice has not been in vain: Lee was fixed up with thirteen-year-old Aurora, who gave birth to a cub on Thanksgiving Day. Mother and baby are doing fine, but are in seclusion. This is the first cub sired by Lee, the zoo notes.

“We are very proud of the continued success of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s polar bear program," zoo president Tom Stalf said in an announcement. "The polar bear is a species that continues to face many threats to their survival, and we are not only helping to contribute to their future with these births, but we also remain committed to sharing the knowledge we gain through these experiences with our conservation partners and others working to help save polar bears."

The Columbus Zoo traditionally holds contests to name its new animals. Given this city's role in making this cub possible, is it too early to suggest...Denver?  After all, moving Cranbeary and Lee to their new mates left the Denver Zoo with a polar bear for the first time since the 1930s.

"We don’t have immediate plans to bring polar bears back to Denver Zoo," explains Kubie, who says that his team was thrilled to hear the news about Lee and the cub. "However, we do hope to build a new habitat for them as we continue to execute our master plan with new exhibits and experiences that will benefit our animals and guests. Polar bears are one of many species that need our help, and zoos play an important role in their survival."
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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