5/29/2013 11:44:50 AM

A Visit with Siku and Friends

By KT Miller

We rounded the corner just after 7:30 a.m. and Siku sprang into action. When the bears see Frank, they know it's breakfast time. Siku roared with delight and rambled over to say hello. Frank greeted the bears and gave them their morning meal. I gazed in wonder, watching the show.

The Scandinavian Wildlife Park is located on the lush peninsula of Djursland in Kolind, Denmark. It was founded by owner/operator Frank Vigh-Larsen and has grown immensely since it was first established as a deer park 10 years ago. Prior to founding the Wildlife Park, Frank earned a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition. He became known for his work with deer and originally founded the deer park to help educate people about an animal everyone encountered but knew very little about.

The park is now 450,000 square meters, has over 18 different animal species, and 4.5 km of trails for visitors to explore. All of the animals in the park either live—or at one time could have lived—in Denmark's climate.

Initially one would think that polar bears could not have thrived in Denmark. However, Kolind is located at approximately 56 degrees north, a mere two degrees lower than Churchill, Manitoba, where the Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear population still lives today in a region known as the Subarctic. There have also been fossils found in the North Sea and Baltic Sea dating back approximately 10,000 years, suggesting that at one time southern Scandinavia was indeed polar bear habitat.

The emphasis on climate-appropriate species keeps the Scandinavian Wildlife Park from needing to artificially create environments for the animals, which is expensive and often requires a lot of energy and resources, resulting in an unnecessary environmental impact.

The size of the park, and more important, the size of the animal enclosures, is perhaps its most defining feature. As a visitor you can see that the animals are happy and exhibiting natural behavior.

Recently, I was working with some of the footage from the Siku Cam that PBI operates in partnership with explore.org. Skimming through, I saw Siku leap into the water. I paused, scrolled back, and played the video again. Siku carefully picked up a rock in his mouth, threw it into the pond, and then leaped after it, diving to the bottom and re-surfacing with the rock in his mouth, and splashing and rolling about. An unhappy animal would not behave in such a manner. It was a wonderful moment to witness.

Siku's enclosure is three to four times the size of a polar bear enclosure at an average zoo. The enclosure that Ilke and her 6-month-old twins occupy is over two times the size of Siku's enclosure. That is unheard of among captive animal facilities.

For those who are not familiar, Siku is a 1-½ year old polar bear that was born and raised in Denmark at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park. At the time of his birth, Siku's mother was not able to produce milk and the staff at the SWP took over rearing the cub.

The park staff consulted with experts and implemented a careful combination of hands-on, hands-off development. It was important for Siku to have a mother figure and feel secure, but also to know that he was a bear and not a human. At four months old Siku began sleeping by himself in his own enclosure at the park, while polar bears in the wild stay with their mother for the first two years. A staff member stayed nearby at all times during those first months, but Siku thrived in the environment at the park and as a result developed into a healthy, independent young polar bear.

When he was big enough, he was moved into an enclosure adjacent to the other polar bears at the park. He quickly became curious and started interacting with the other bears from behind the safety of his own fence. He became fond of Smilla, a 22-year-old female bear who was brought to the park in 2011 from Budapest. In early April of this year Siku and Smilla met face to face for the first time and seemed to like each other's company. The park has moved them into an enclosure together and their bond has only strengthened since.

Siku's rearing has been a great success story among the captive polar bear community. It takes a dedicated staff along with an exceptional facility to hand raise a polar bear, successfully providing motherly nurture while fostering wild instinct. The SWP's success is obvious when you see Siku swimming, playing, or calmly snoozing away in the grass.

Children visiting the park often wonder "Why are some of the polar bears not white?" This of course is because they love to roll in the earth to dry off after a swim, satisfy an itch, or even just to stretch after a nap, and the earth is either dirt or grass most of the year in Denmark. But the bears do not mind. They are very content, and it would be a big concern if they were not rolling in the grass and dirt, as that would imply that are not happy with their surroundings. It would also require an immense amount of energy to make ice or snow for the bears year-round, and would defeat the greater purpose. After all, the goal is to decrease energy use in order to save wild polar bears.

The park does a wonderful job of educating its guests about climate change and explaining the importance of saving the polar bear's sea ice home. They put a lot of energy into operating with a low environmental impact. Not only are all the animal enclosures natural, but they use energy as efficiently as possible, source the animals food as naturally and locally as they can, and even have lights that turn on and off automatically in the guest restrooms.

Of course, in an ideal world Siku and his fellow polar bears at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park would be living in the wild, but after visiting the park I thought to myself "These polar bears have a really wonderful life." It is inspiring to see the immense amount of love that went into this vision and the great amount of love that is pouring back out and radiating into the world.

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