10/24/2013 2:31:47 PM

Wilhelm, a Very Special Polar Bear

By Valerie Abbott

Wilhelm the polar bear died recently. He lived the first part of his life in terrible conditions. He was forced to perform in a traveling Mexican circus along with seven other polar bears. The bears lived in small cages, had little to no water, and were fed a mostly vegetarian diet. Through the efforts of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Polar Bears International, and several zoos across the United States that offered them new homes, these bears were rescued from the circus while performing in a U.S. territory.

One died before he could leave and another died on the way to the North Carolina Zoo.

All the bears suffered greatly, were in ill health, and barely living. But through the incredibly hard work and relentless perseverance of their keepers, the remaining six came through and went on to live a much better life. Before their rescue, these bears had never been on grass or in the water. Each day was a new challenge.

So what made Wilhelm (aka Willy, Willie) so special? He had a personality like no other. The keepers in their challenge of keeping these bears enriched soon discovered they could put just about anything in the exhibit and he would play for hours. Wilhelm loved children and pretty much anybody that came to visit. He would spend hours swimming up to the window and blowing his patented bubbles. The crowds would shriek with delight each time. Wilhelm seemed to enjoy it as much as his fans. A local pickle company donated a giant plastic pickle and he would hold it like it was his favorite thing in the world. A fire hose, a 50 lb. ball, Pepsi and milk crates, a huge blue barrel, a tire, or even a lifeguard float, would keep him busy for hours! Once he somehow managed to get what appeared to be part of a child's playground set on his head.

You can view photos of Wilhelm on my Flickr page. Note that over a half million people have viewed his portfolio!

Willy came to us in early 2003. To be honest I was a little upset because we had to move our original bear back to the zoo where he was born to accommodate this new bear. But it didn't take Willy long to win me over. I had just bought my first DSLR camera and couldn't have asked for a better subject. We spent hours together. During the winter months he was most active and fewer visitors came to the zoo. This allowed me much more time alone with him, recording his antics.

A few photograph distributers noticed my photos and wanted to publish them. Willy became a star! Over the years he has had his photos spread in newspapers and magazines across the world.

One of his more famous connections is with the singer Dave Matthews. I received an email one day asking if it would be all right to publish a drawing Dave did of Willy based on one of my photos. It was to be on the liner of his upcoming album. Of course I said it would be great. I was invited to meet Dave and attend one of his concerts. I presented him with an 8x10 print of the photo he used as a guide (I even autographed it for him).

Willy had gone from an almost certain death to thriving in his new home. There can never be enough appreciation for the keepers and staff that kept Willy happy. He had constant foot issues and had even had his front paws declawed by the circus, yet his spirit just was unstoppable.

When the North Carolina Zoo decided to upgrade Willy's exhibit, he went on vacation to the zoo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The North Carolina Zoo's Society decided to give him a farewell party. People came from all over the country to wish him bon voyage. We put our painted handprints on a barrel and some of his favorite toys went with him. A tree was planted in his honor with a plaque that had one of my photos engraved on it. This is a permanent reminder of what a great ambassador he was for his species and the planet.

In the two years he was in Milwaukee I visited him twice. Both times I met his keepers and it was obvious he had spread his charms there as well.

Wilhelm was indeed a very special bear. I still cannot grasp that he is gone, that I will never see him or take his photo again. Sure there will be others to come along but there will never be another Willy.

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