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Polar bear who escaped during Duluth flood has health scare

Berlin, the female polar bear displaced by the flooding at Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo in June, is now on public display at the Como Zoo in St. Paul.

Berlin, the polar bear who briefly escaped from her Lake Superior Zoo exhibit during the June flood, is having a health scare at her current home in St. Paul.

Berlin underwent surgery Saturday at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, the Lake Superior Zoo's director of operations Peter Pruett said Tuesday.

The polar bear had been acting lethargic and vomiting in its new home at Como Park Zoo, said Dr. Louise Beyea, the Lake Superior Zoo's veterinarian. After an endoscopy, X-ray and ultrasound proved inconclusive, exploratory stomach surgery was performed. It revealed a necrotic mass -- tissue that has been killed by disease or trauma -- and signs of previous abdominal bleeding.

Berlin has been returned to Como Park Zoo and is under observation. On Tuesday evening, Pruett said Berlin is in "guarded" condition.

He said blood was drawn from the bear Tuesday morning to check for anything abnormal, like a kidney problem, and everything came back normal.

Berlin's bowels are moving, he said, a good sign. She remains dehydrated from the surgery but is starting to eat a little more, Pruett said. Veterinarians are putting her on a pain regimen and pulling back on the use of antibiotics that could be causing an upset stomach, Pruett said.

"She's improving," he said.

The two zoos are having daily conversations about the bear, and some Lake Superior staff members are in St. Paul, Pruett said.

The director said there is nothing conclusive yet on how Berlin may have become ill.

"Obviously, Berlin is a beloved member of our family, and even more so after her heroic survival during the flood," Pruett said.

The polar bear was named Berlin because she was born on the day the Berlin Wall fell: Nov. 9, 1989. Berlin came to the zoo in 1990 along with a male bear named Bubba. He died unexpectedly in 2007 of apparent liver disease.

Berlin escaped from the flooded Polar Shores exhibit along with two seals during the early morning of June 20 when water rushed through the zoo in a historic flood. She was found about 5 a.m. sitting on rocks above the exhibit. When Berlin started walking toward the still-dangerous Kingsbury Creek, Pruett told the veterinarian Beyea to shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart.

After Berlin took the dart in her rump, she turned and chased Beyea, who took refuge in a car. Berlin then chased the car before the sedative started to take effect.

With the Polar Shores exhibit extensively damaged, Berlin and the seals were relocated to Como Park. No decision on whether the exhibit will return has been announced, although it's not part of the zoo's long-range plan.

Pruett said he is "very close" on a decision on whether Berlin will return to Duluth.

The June 20 incident wasn't the first time Berlin was shot with a tranquilizer dart. In its early years, the bear had a habit of occasionally falling into the exhibit's moat. On one occasion, a city boom truck and a safety net were used to retrieve her, but first the zoo's veterinarian shot her with a tranquilizer dart.

Overall, Pruett said, Berlin is doing remarkably well as she approaches age 23. Polar bears are known to live into their 30s in captivity, he said, and any bear into its 20s can be considered a success story.

"Once they hit their 20s, there's a greater chance for things to happen," Pruett said. "It was a nervous weekend."