The Denver Zoo’s Polar Bears Are Splitting Up. But Trust Us, The Feelings Are Mutual

Listen Now
Photo: Denver Zoo Polar Bears
The Denver Zoo's polar bears, Cranbeary and Lee, will soon leave for different zoos for better changes at breeding.

Sometime this Tuesday, Cranbeary, a 700-pound polar bear, will leave her habitat at the Denver Zoo and head to new digs in Alaska. The plan is for her to settle in and, just maybe by this time next year, become a mom.

The move is something of a divorce for Cranbeary and her current mate, Lee, who will leave Denver soon for a zoo in Columbus, Ohio.

It’ll be the first time in about 80 years that the Denver Zoo will have no polar bears. But Cranbeary and Lee's uncoupling is in their best interest, and that of their species too.

The two bears were supposed to have something of a love affair. But seven breeding seasons have come and passed, and Cranbeary has yet to bear a cub.

“We know that they breed, and we know that she doesn’t produce cubs. So what happens in between those two events is sort of a black box to us,” Denver Zoo animal curator Becca McCloskey said.

The reasons for their infertility is a bit of a mystery. Hormone analyses have been inconclusive.Photo: Denver Zoo Polar Bear Keepers

When the Denver Zoo announced Oct. 2 that Cranbeary and Lee would separate and leave the zoo, the news was met with understandable sadness.

“People have connected with them,” said Brian Aucone, the zoo's senior vice president for animal science.

But zoo staff are quick to correct those who believe the bears are bonded and being "ripped apart," as one petition signed by 90,000 people stated.

They say Cranbeary and Lee won't miss each other. At the Denver Zoo they actively avoided each other outside of breeding season. Polar bears are solitary animals that only come together in the wild to mate.

"They spend most of their time apart here at the Denver Zoo," Aucone said. "And they want it that way."

Cranbeary and Lee's enclosure won't be empty for long, but the new tenants won't be polar bears. The Denver Zoo plans to move its brown bears into the space. The zoo may acquire polar bears again in the future, but it would only be after a new state-of-the-art habitat is built for them.

“It’s heartbreaking. I love polar bears, I love these two individuals. Anybody out there who feels sad about polar bears leaving, I promise you the keepers who have relationships with them feel that tenfold," McCloskey said.

“We’re making the hard choice for us, but what’s right for them."