One of the oldest zoo-born polar bears in the country, Buzz connected a new generation of visitors to the value of conservation.
One of the only polar bears on the planet that millions knew by first name, Como Zoo’s Buzz died on August 1 after suffering from a series of seizures. At the age of 24, Buzz and his twin brother Neil, (named for Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong), were the 7th and 8th oldest zoo-born polar bears in the country.
“It’s always hard to lose an animal, but this was one of the hardest losses for me, because I’ve worked with Buzz during his entire time at Como Zoo,” says senior keeper Allison Jungheim (pictured above). In fact, the twin bears, born at the Louisville Zoo in 1995 and later transferred to San Diego Zoo, hadn’t ever seen snow until they arrived in St. Paul in 2001, a favorite memory shared by many Como Zoo aquatics keepers.
In 2010, Buzz and Neil were the beneficiaries of an extraordinary gift from the community—a $16 million state-of-the-art habitat that transformed the behind-the-scenes animal care Como Zoo’s keepers could provide for the bears, while also bringing visitors in closer visual contact with their massive, thousand-pound frames.
“Polar Bear Odyssey was really the first habitat that showed the public the conservation vision that’s driving Como Zoo, both as an education destination designed to inspire young people to care about animals, and as an AZA-accredited zoo committed to providing best practice care for animals like Buzz,” says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends, which led a successful capital campaign to support the project. “It was the first habitat to bring Como’s operant conditioning training program front and center where visitors could see and learn from the connections keepers make with the animals in their care. I do believe that’s why so many visitors feel such a personal connection to Buzz and Neil. Their lives were improved by this habitat, and it was a delight to watch them thrive in Polar Bear Odyssey.”
Over the last decade at Polar Bear Odyssey, Como Zoo’s keepers have earned national recognition for their work providing daily enrichment training and reducing stereotypic behaviors that can sometimes be a sign of stress or boredom. Como’s keepers even taught the two bears how to present their paws for voluntary blood-draws—an important health tool for improving polar bear longevity.
Frequent visitors to Como Zoo became familiar with the two polar bears’ unique personalities. “Buzz could be a bit of a bully with his brother, and was definitely the more serious of the two, while Neil was the goofy, more laid-back bear,” Jungheim says. With his brother gone, Neil “was a little nervous at first, but he’s starting to get into his own groove, and is using all the corners of the habitat that Buzz sometimes kept him from exploring before.’’
While visitors have expressed their condolences for Buzz, many have also shared their concerns about how Neil will adapt to the loss, even though polar bears in the wild are solitary animals. “That’s definitely something we’ll be paying close attention to as well,” says Jungheim. “I can neither confirm nor deny that the keepers are spoiling Neil rotten right now.”