The Unbearable Rightness of Splitting Up Cranbeary and Lee

Cranbeary and Lee in happier times.
Cranbeary and Lee in happier times. Denver Zoo Facebook
The Mile High City's been beary, beary good to Cranbeary, but now it's time to say buh-bye. Sometime today, October 23, the sixteen-year-old polar bear will pack up and depart the Denver Zoo with staffers from the Alaska Zoo, who've been in town for the past few days "learning all they can about her preferences and habits," according to that zoo's breathless blog that's been sharing Cranbeary news with the eager folks of Anchorage.

But at first, it won't be all fun and games for Cranbeary in her new home, despite the fact that she's being fixed up with Lyutyik, a popular male polar bear there. "We would like to remind all of our zoo supporters and polar bear enthusiasts that she will be living in our transition and maternity areas off-exhibit for some time after her arrival," the Alaska Zoo advises. "She will be kept separate from Lyutyik for a quarantine period and to allow her to get used to her new surroundings. She will slowly meet him and get to know him through barriers to ensure an eventual, safe introduction."

And, with any luck, a more successful union. Cranbeary is leaving Colorado because she and the Denver Zoo's other polar bear, eighteen-year-old Lee, haven't managed to produce a cub over the past six years. "They've been put together for each breeding season, without any luck," reports Jake Kubie, the Denver Zoo's director of communications.

But is that any reason to split them up? Not according to over 100,000 people who've 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 pleads, "she will still be held in captivity, living a sad, stressful life, thousands of miles away from her friend, Lee."

click to enlarge Cranbeary, alone. - DENVER ZOO
Cranbeary, alone.
Denver Zoo
The Denver Zoo was not moved. "That petition is pretty misguided and misinformed, as much as we appreciate the sentiment," Kubie says. "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."

But this city's sacrifice could help the species survive. Polar bears are one of around 500 animals that have a specific Species Survival Plan, according to Kubie, with the equivalent of a studbook keeper maintaining "incredible data about every polar bear that lives in American zoos," who then makes recommendations for fruitful matches.

And contrary to popular belief, the plan is not splitting apart two lovers. Cranbeary and Lee "are not bonded, not mated for life, not in love," Kubie insists. Both in zoos and in the wild, polar bears are mostly solitary animals who only come together for several weeks a year during the mating season. And Cranbeary has been losing interest in Lee even before that period ends, Kubie says, noting that she "starts getting pretty agitated with Lee," he says.

Maybe it's the seven-year-itch?

After Lee packs up and heads to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio in early November, the Denver Zoo will be without a polar bear for the first time since the 1930s. (And the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District may need to get a new mascot.)

But as history has shown, gone is not necessarily forgotten.

Back in 1994, all of Denver was held hostage by an obsession with Klondike and Snow, two polar bear cubs born at the Denver Zoo, then abandoned by their mean mother, Ulu. Before they were sent to a new home in SeaWorld the next year, the cubs were more popular than John Elway, who had not yet won a Super Bowl.

"It would be impossible to dream up the endless amounts of attention accorded Klondike and Snow, from their birth (okay, okay, hand-raised cubs are rare) to their first walks to last week's almost round-the-clock coverage of their imminent departure for Florida. The crates they would fly in. The frozen fish they would snack on. The zoo personnel who would accompany them. The sobbing children they would leave behind...and, of course, the gaping holes their departure would leave on TV newscasts," I wrote in "Klondike and Snow Job," published November 15, 1995.

Then, too, Denverites tried to hold on to the bears, passing petitions encouraging the city to turn a section of the just-abandoned Stapleton airport over to Klondike and Snow. In an eleventh-hour effort to cling to the cubs, the Zoo Two-Save Our Bears Foundation held a rally...but only fifty supporters showed up.

"This is a pretty apathetic town," disappointed Zoo Two founder Rachelle Blake complained to a reporter at the time. "We could never have the Million Man March here, because there aren't a million people to get off their duffs to do anything."

You would think the bears had been shipped to Siberia — where, come to think of it, they would have felt right at home — rather than Orlando, vacation capital of the Sun Belt. They left behind saddened fans and tons of memorabilia, ranging from snow globes to thank-you cards. But they weren't together forever. Snow ultimately developed an itch of her own, and in 2012 was shipped to Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, which zookeepers thought might help her allergies, but she died a few months later. Klondike passed away at SeaWorld the next year.

Gone, but not forgotten, as evidenced by this video:

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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