When Lee Shiau Lan first found out from her husband about Inuka’s declining health earlier this month, she decided to make frequent visits to the Singapore zoo to visit the 27-year-old polar bear.
“I was very frightened and worried that he would suddenly pass away. I wanted to take the remaining time to come here often to see him – it is a very natural human instinct,” said the 43-year-old Singapore permanent resident in Mandarin.
It was during the start of a planned half-day visit to the attraction on Wednesday afternoon (25 April) – her ninth in two weeks – that she first found out about Inuka’s death from a zoo guide.
“‘Are you kidding?’ was my reaction. I thought it was a joke. I am still in disbelief,” said Lee, who formerly worked in the accounting industry.
The last time she saw the polar bear, estimated to be in his 70s in human years, alive was on Monday.
Lee and her husband, both animal lovers, had kept themselves abreast of updates on Inuka’s health via Facebook as well as a close-knit WhatsApp group of “Inuka fans”.
The constant stream of updates closer to the medical check-up on Wednesday had kept her on edge – but she remained cautiously hopeful. Like many other visitors who have done so in the past weeks, Lee made a point to leave a small get-well card at Inuka’s enclosure every time she visited.
At the same time, she took the opportunity to take as many videos and photos of Inuka as she could.
Wednesday’s visit was no exception.
“I wanted to write a get-well card for him today. It’s very sad – I brought it along and wanted to write it here, but it’s a goodbye card instead,” she added. “But Inuka’s old and we can’t be selfish. We have to let him go even if he is well-loved.”
Inuka happy with rare salmon treat
Following a medical examination on Wednesday morning, Inuka was found to have not made any significant improvement in his health despite intensive treatment.
His team of veterinarians and keepers then made the unanimous but “difficult” decision not to revive him from the anaesthesia-induced sleep he was put into at 7am for the examination.
The polar bear was later injected with an additional chemical and died at around 9.30am, surrounded by a team of carers – past and present -, a welfare committee and a team of veterinarians.
Most visitors at the zoo Yahoo News Singapore spoke to on Wednesday were unaware of the news of Inuka’s passing.
They were, however, aware of his popularity; and some, of his declining health. A few had travelled as far as from India and China to take a look at Inuka, the first polar bear to have been born in the tropics.
Ashoo Jain, 29, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, had made visiting Inuka a must-do while he was planning his itinerary for a six-day trip in Singapore. It was supposed to be his first time – and “a good chance” – for him to see a polar bear in the flesh.
“I was shocked by the news as I especially came down to see Inuka. It is very sad because in India, a warm country, you cannot see polar bears. I don’t think I can see one in the near future,” said the Indian national who came from Mumbai with his sister’s family.
Haseena Firthous, 32, who was visiting the zoo with her daughter and family friends from India, said that while she was aware of Inuka’s declining health, she was not expecting him to pass away.
“It was a pity because I have last seen him (eight years ago). Even my daughter knows about him – she saw an article in the papers about him recently,” said the Singaporean housewife, who added that she would break the news to her daughter.
A staff at the zoo, who declined to be named, had thought things were looking up for Inuka as he was observed to be “swimming instead of lying around” the past two days.
“Two days ago, they gave him a full salmon and he was happily munching on it. He had not had one for so long,” he added.
The polar bear had been suffering from arthritis, dental issues and occasional ear infections, as well as age-related muscle atrophy. His keepers also recently noticed that he had a stiffer gait – particularly in his hind limbs – which resulted in abrasions on his paw pads.
Wednesday’s examination had revealed that open wounds discovered during an earlier one on 3 April did not improve despite additional treatment over the last three weeks.
These were “quite deep and would be aggravated as Inuka’s arthritis worsened”, said Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which runs the zoo, during a press conference on Wednesday.
Private memorial for Inuka
Kenny Ng found himself in the middle of an “unexpected” trip to the zoo with his girlfriend when he read about Inuka’s passing.
The 29-year-old Singaporean, who works in sales, grew up with fond memories of visiting Inuka and his parents Nanook and Sheba at the zoo. Nanook died in 1995 at the age of 18, while Sheba died five years ago when she was 35.
Ng was sad to have missed seeing Inuka by two days. “I have seen him about five times, the first time was during a primary school trip. We are not that far apart (in age),” he added.
A private memorial service for Inuka will be held on Thursday but it will not be open to the public. A tribute wall will be put up for the public at Inuka’s exhibit to pen their thoughts, which Lee plans to visit on Thursday to pay her last respects.
WRS said there are plans to refurbish Inuka’s space into a sea lion exhibit “a few months down the road”.
In Ng’s words, however, “Nothing beats a polar bear.”