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Central Standard

Bye Bye Nikita — A Farewell Letter About A Kansas City Polar Bear

Courtesy Photo
Kansas City Zoo
KCUR's Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann attempts an exit interview with Nikita the polar bear at the Kansas City Zoo in mid-December.

A letter to Kansas City Zoo members from the CEO:

I’ve been a “zookeeper” for a little over 38 years – wow — time has flown by. 

My first animal charges, back at the Omaha Zoo, were gorillas, orangutans, sea lions, rhinos, gaur (wild cattle from SE Asia), elephants and an assortment of monkeys. I was hooked from day one even though I never imagined working at the zoo as a career opportunity.

So many things have changed in the zoo world since that time, except, our number one priority each and every day is our animal care and their welfare.

Over time we’ve grown to utilize technology and international collaboration to help manage and care for our animals. In the very early 1980s somebody showed up at a zoo conference with a mini-computer complete with floppy discs.

Since that time, our international zookeepers have combined talents and efforts in our quest to preserve species and care for wild animals. With few exceptions, each individual species that we care for are managed by teams of zoo professionals and scientists.

We must preserve what we have, manage genetic diversity and only allow animals to reproduce when we know there’s a place for them in our zoos.


Credit Courtesy photo / Kansas City Zoo
Kansas City Zoo
Nikita has lived in the Kansas City Zoo's polar bear exhibit since 2010.

All zoos have animals arriving and departing on a regular basis, most of the time these relocations occur with little notice from our visitors. On the occasion when that transfer involves one of the zoo’s most high profile animals, everyone notices — as they should.

What a special day it was when Nikita joined us in KC in 2010. On another banner day, Berlin joined us in late 2012. Nikita was moved from the Toledo Zoo as a high energy 2 ½ year old; Berlin a little more mature, arrived as a 23 year old. Our “stars” arrived at the direction of the Polar Bear scientific group; we call them an SSP (Species Survival Plan).

At the time of Berlin’s arrival, even though she was a bit mature, the Species Population Managers thought it possible that she could conceive and have cubs here in KC. She and Nikita, after being introduced to each other, did exhibit behaviors consistent with polar bear breeding activity; hope was in the air.

You may remember Elvis, the poo sniffer-dog? His prediction was that hope wasn’t in the air, but we tried two more breeding seasons. They were together again this past April and if success was realized we may see cubs this winter; chances are that we won’t. As Nikita approaches his 9th birthday, we as zookeepers must get Nikita into a situation where he can help our overall zoo polar bear population reproduce.

There are lots of numbers and statistics that I’ve had to digest and understand to help facilitate the decision, however badly I don’t want to make, to allow him to help polar bears survive. In a situation where logic has to overcome emotion, Nikita must travel on to Asheboro, North Carolina, and meet Anana, a 14-year-old female bear originally from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

We feel this will give us the best opportunity to make more polar bears for kids and families to enjoy and learn about. The plight of the polar bear in the wild is at a critical point and zookeepers around the world are engaged with the scientific community around a singular purpose; save the polar bear!

Though I really don’t want him to leave (did I mention that?), we always have to do what’s best for the animals. We will celebrate his 9th birthday this November and will give one heck of a send-off party but we look forward to Berlin enjoying her time in her great home.

She absolutely loves the swimming pool but is always a little intimidated when Nikita joins her for a swim and immediately heads to shore. We expect to see a lot more of her; she has a very dainty swimming stroke.

We will wish Nikita great success and hope he passes on his special swim moves to his cubs; lots of cubs and lots of swim strokes. Who knows, maybe some day in the next few years we’ll be welcoming a “Little Nikita” right back here at the Kansas City Zoo.

Friends of the (Kansas City) Zoo originally published this note, entitled "It's About The Animals!" from Kansas City Zoo CEO Randy Wisthoff, in the group's fall newsletter . 

Central Standard Kansas City Zoo