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Duluth polar bear Berlin headed to Kansas City to breed

Nikita the polar bear makes his debut at the Kansas City Zoo on Aug. 7, 2010. Nikita has been selected to breed with Berlin. (2010 file / Kansas City Star)

Talk about your December-May marriages.

Berlin, Duluth's favorite absentee polar bear, is heading to Kansas City, Mo., just as she reaches the ripe old age of 23.

It's all about love, or at least mating, zoo officials hope -- with a 6-year-old.

The age difference isn't significant to polar bears, said Peter Pruett, the Lake Superior Zoo's director of operations. Nikita, the Kansas City polar bear, is the optimal age.

Berlin is old, but not necessarily too old.

"If I were to pick a prime age for a bear to breed, I wouldn't pick a 23-year-old," said Randi Myerson, coordinator of the polar bear species survival plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "But it does happen."

The move to the Kansas City Zoo, planned for mid-December, will complete perhaps the most adventurous year in Berlin's life.

Berlin was forced from the Lake Superior Zoo's Polar Shores Exhibit by flooding on June 20 and was on the loose at the zoo for several hours before recapture with the use of tranquilizer darts. With the exhibit extensively damaged, the bear was moved to the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, where she has been sharing quarters with twin polar bears Buzz and Neil.

Then on Oct. 13, Berlin underwent exploratory stomach surgery that revealed a necrotic mass -- tissue that was killed by disease or trauma.

The decision to move Berlin comes with the good news that the bear is fully recovered, Pruett said.

The meeting with Nikita, who is on loan to Kansas City from the Toledo (Ohio) Zoo, could be a milestone for Berlin. The other male polar bears Berlin has been with -- Buzz and Neil in St. Paul and Bubba before his death in Duluth -- all were neutered, Pruett said.

Polar bears typically mate in February or March, Pruett said. To meet that schedule, Berlin needs to be moved as quickly as possible. She will be quarantined for 30 days in Kansas City, and then there will be an "introduction period" between the bears. "It's not as simple as going: 'Hey, Berlin, this is Nikita,'" Pruett said.

Berlin went so long without such a meeting because for a long time, zoos weren't really looking for more polar bears. "Up until seven or eight years ago, a lot of facilities were closing down polar bear exhibits," said Myerson, who also is curator of mammals at the Toledo Zoo. "It's an expensive exhibit if you're going to do it right."

But with Arctic ice melting, polar bear habitat is declining rapidly in the wild, she said. That gives polar bears in captivity a crucial role to play.

"They truly are ambassadors for their wild counterparts," Myerson said. "They're such charismatic animals, and people care about them."

In the U.S., 65 polar bears are in captivity, but only 37 are in the program, Pruett said. Berlin is one of 23 females.

Details of a breeding-loan agreement are being worked out among the Duluth, Kansas City and Toledo zoos, Pruett said. Berlin's stay in St. Paul definitely will be over. But the good news is that Berlin someday could return to Duluth -- along with her first-born cub.

That depends on the zoo having a polar bear habitat. Pruett said plans will be unveiled soon for a Duluth polar bear exhibit that won't be in the flood plain.