Singapore Zoo’s beloved polar bear Inuka celebrated his 27th birthday and was treated to a feast in the presence of about 400 well-wishers on Tuesday (26 December).
Inuka has surpassed the 25-year average lifespan of polar bears and is estimated to be in his 70s in human years.
Given his ailing teeth due to his advanced age, instead of the usual ice-based birthday desserts topped with his favourite treats, Inuka was given a “softer” 10kg cake made of agar agar, which is commonly found in Asian desserts. He was also treated to a half-cut watermelon and a birthday “ang pow” filled with blueberries wrapped in banana leaves, and carrots.
Mohan Ponichamy, Deputy Head Keeper (Carnivores) at the zoo, said, “He is missing some of his premolars and his incisors, upper and lower, are slightly worn off.”
Topped with salmon imported from Norway, the cake took a small team of around 10 – including aquarists, nutritionists and Inuka’s keepers – about one month to prepare. They spent over $500 on agar agar powder to perfect the cake.
A key challenge was transporting the cake to a man-made iceberg located in the centre of the Frozen Tundra exhibit, where Inuka resides. The three-metre deep pool surrounding the exhibit also posed safety issues for the team.
“Instead of placing it every year at the upper deck, we wanted to place it on the iceberg so that everybody could watch him enjoy his cake from the grandstand,” Mohan said.
Inuka, the first and only polar bear born in the tropics, is among the two per cent of the total zoo population to be placed under a special senior animal care programme.
All animals at the zoo that reach “about 70 per cent of their life expectancies” are placed under the programme, said Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, Deputy CEO and Chief Life Sciences Officer, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which runs the zoo. This means modifications to their care routines, physical environments and nutritional intakes.
In Inuka’s case, his diet has been adjusted on a regular basis to be “lower in calories, lower in sugar, higher in fibre, lower in protein and lower in fat,” according to Dr Cheng.
Inuka currently measures two-and-a-half metres from nose to tail and weighs 513 kg. Being within the healthy range of 509 to 520kg helps in alleviating any joint discomfort that he might experience and allowing him to move around comfortably with lesser strain.
He undergoes daily quality of life assessments, weekly visual health checks, and health examinations twice a year under general anaesthesia. His health condition has been stable in the past year, apart from a few instances when he was recovering from infections.
Dr Cheng said, “His arthritis is one of the things that is worrying us the most, so he gets daily medications (long-term glucosamine and anti-inflammatory treatment) to relieve the symptoms. Luckily, he has got a big pool as well (to exercise and increase his muscle strength).”
Inuka, which means “silent stalker” in the Inuit language, is one of four polar bears to have resided at the zoo to date, including his parents Nanook and Sheba, as well as Anana, a female polar bear caught in the wild. His father Nanook and mother Sheba arrived at the zoo in 1978 from Winnipeg Zoo in Canada and Cologne Zoo in Germany, respectively.
Nanook passed away in 1995 at the age of 18 while Sheba died five years ago when she was 35. Anana arrived from Canada in 1979 and died in 1999.
“Inuka will be the last polar bear in Singapore for a long, long time. Our policy right now is to concentrate on animals that we can create an environment as close as possible to where they are found naturally,” Dr Cheng said.