For two creatures in frigid Chicago, the historic cold that shut down most of the city swooped in at the perfect time, the start of the season for polar bear love.
“We’re into the breeding season now,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs at the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the Brookfield Zoo, home to the polar bears Nan and Hudson.
He added, “We’re hoping we’ll have success.”
When the orphaned cub that would come to be named Nan was found under a house in the Alaskan town of Barrow two decades ago, she was deemed too young to survive solo in the wild and ended up being sent from the Arctic chill to the relatively sweltering lower 49 states.
She seemingly had little hope of ever again enjoying her native climate as she went from a zoo in Tacoma, Washington to one in Toledo, Ohio and finally to her present home.
But thanks to climate change that is more properly described as climate derangement, the now-grown Nan was enjoying temperatures in Chicago on Wednesday that were a touch colder than those in Barrow. Nan could have been back in that Arctic realm where an Inupiaq person told that Nan’s name was short for Nanutaaq would know that it means “young of a bear.”
Hudson was born at the zoo, which has been breeding polar bears since the 1930s. And save for a brief time in Winnipeg after his birth in October of 2011, Hudson had not enjoyed temperatures such as hit Chicago on Wednesday and imparted purpose to his insulating blubber as well as the hollow hairs of his fur that absorb and retain the heat of the sun.
Had Hudson and Nan so desired, they could have pawed the door to a heated shelter and made known that they wanted to seek refuge from the deep freeze, as had most living things in Chicago. They instead remained in the open air.
“Minus 23 or 24 degrees for a polar bear is nothing to bother them,” Zeigler said. “As long as it's cold, it's going to be what they like.”
Zeigler said the sight of Nan and Hudson in the elements was made perfect by the snow that accompanied the historical cold.
“Seeing them in the snow is even more special,” Zeigler said. “That’s what they evolved for.”
He added, “It’s a good time for them.”
But in terms of polar bear love, the twentysomething Nan and 7-year-old Nan do not seem exactly star-crossed. Ziegler said, “[Nan], she’s a mature, serious female. Where Hudson, he’s still a spunky little…”
Zeigler caught himself.
“...I don't say ‘little,’ he’s not little at all. He is still a spunky guy. He tends to play more.”
The one prior season of polar bear love shared by Nan and Hudson ended with no result and she essentially gave him the chase.
“Last year, after breeding season, she was like,'OK, I'm out of the breeding season, I'm done with you, leave 'em alone,’” Zeigler recalled.
Zeigler said the two seemed to be getting along fine on Wednesday. The zoo was closed to the public because of the cold and will again be closed on Thursday, but he was on duty along with a staff of essential workers. They fed the various animals, including Nan and Hudson. The polar bears’ predilections extend beyond the fish and meat you might expect.
“They love vegetables,” Zeigler said. “They love lettuce and things like that.”
As is its custom in all temperatures, the zoo employed automated feeders to stash treats in various locations so as to help keep Nan and Hudson from getting bored. The two bears dug in the snow and there was hope they would mate this time.
However it goes, the weather for them was just right. And that means it was alarmingly wrong for us, who do not have hollow hairs that can draw warmth from even the faintest winter sun.
We do have multiple ways of deranging the climate. And, however well Nan and Hudson were doing foraging for hidden frozen veggies and generally luxuriating in things sub-sub-zero, there will surely come a day with heat as historic as Wednesday’s cold.
And you have to worry what the seasons ahead may hold for any future products of polar bear love.