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Duluth polar bear Berlin and new Kansas City mate 'REALLY friendly'

Berlin and Nikita have warmed up to one another. Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Zoo.

By John Lundy / Duluth News Tribune - 

DULUTH, Minn. - This being a family newspaper, we want to put this sensitively:

Biology is taking place in the polar bear exhibit of the Kansas City Zoo. And, perhaps, an addition.

“We won’t know until November or December if a cub hits the ground,” said Peter Pruitt, director of zoo operations at the Lake Superior Zoo.

In case you’re new here, it should be explained that a polar bear named Berlin was forced to leave Duluth’s zoo after its exhibit was destroyed in last year’s June 20 flood. The 23-year-old female bear first was relocated to the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. Late last year, she was sent to Kansas City in hopes she would mate with a much younger male bear named Nikita.

It’s serious business in zoological terms, because polar bears are an endangered species, and Berlin is one of only 21 captive females in an accredited zoo that’s of optimal breeding age, according to the Lake Superior Zoo.

The relationship between the two bears seemed a bit frosty at first, but they’ve been much, much friendlier of late. This has been observed not only by Kansas City Zoo staff but by Pruitt and anyone else who cares to keep track on the Internet via a “polar bear cam” installed by Kansas City TV station KCTV.

“After hints earlier this week that Nikita and Berlin were getting fresh with each other, there was no doubt Wednesday morning that love was in the air at the Kansas City Zoo,” KCTV reported online.

A Lake Superior Zoo news release teased: “It’s clear that polar bears Berlin and Nikita are becoming much friendlier. How friendly? REALLY friendly.”

Biology is happening just like it’s supposed to, Pruitt said. The primary time for female polar bears to come into heat is in late April and early May, and Berlin answered the call. Nikita, the male bear, responded as male bears are supposed to respond.

Polar bears have a long and variable gestation period — anywhere from 164 to 294 days, Pruitt said. Cubs can be born anywhere from October through January, although November and December are the most likely months. It won’t be known if the experiment paid off until — and if — a cub appears, Pruitt said. That’s because newborn cubs are so small, weighing an average of 1.3 pounds.

It would be at least 1½ years and more likely two before the cub could leave its mother, Pruitt said. He’s still hopeful a new polar bear’s destination would be Duluth, but that would require construction of a new polar bear exhibit. And the price of that would be in the neighborhood of $13 million.

But for now, Pruitt said he’s happy to celebrate the successful mating.

“Berlin, to me, has always been a rallying point,” Pruitt said, bringing a bit of positive news out of the devastation of last year’s flood.

“You want to root for her; you want to cheer,” Pruitt said. “That’s our bear down there doing what we hoped she would do.”