Singapore Zoo's polar bear Inuka put down due to failing health

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
One of Inuka’s caregivers placing her hands on his paws while saying a final goodbye on 25 April, 2018. (PHOTO: Wildlife Reserves Singapore)

The Singapore Zoo’s beloved polar bear Inuka was put down “on humane grounds” on Wednesday (25 April) morning due to his rapidly declining health, said Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

“It is a (very emotional) and sad day. While we feel sadness and do not want to let him go, it is the right thing (to do) from Inuka’s point of view,” said Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, the WRS’ deputy chief executive officer and chief life sciences officer during a press conference held at the zoo’s Forest Lodge. “From Inuka’s point of view, it’s a good day for him.”

Following a medical examination on Wednesday morning, the 27-year-old polar bear – estimated to be in his 70s in human years – was found to have not made any significant improvements despite intensive treatment.

The findings had in fact indicated that his welfare “had been seriously compromised and would only deteriorate further”.

“Since December, his condition had actually taken a toll for the worse. He started deteriorating much faster than he normally would,” said Dr Abraham Mathew, assistant director of veterinary services at the zoo.

Inuka’s care team 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.

Inuka’s family of care givers past and present gathered around him as Dr Mathew administered the final injection to relieve him from suffering on 25 April, 2018. (PHOTO: Wildlife Reserves Singapore)

A full autopsy will be performed on Inuka and it has not yet been determined which part of his remains will be kept for educational purposes, said Dr Cheng. Unlike Ah Meng, the zoo’s iconic orangutan who died in 2008, Inuka would not be buried on site at the zoo.

In preparation for the health check, Inuka had been removed from his exhibit since Tuesday. Inuka’s daily interaction sessions had earlier been suspended in favour of allowing the bear to enjoy his time as he pleased.

WRS, which runs the zoo, said there are plans to refurbish Inuka’s space into a sea lion exhibit “a few months down the road”.

A private memorial service will be held for Inuka on Thursday but it will not be open to the public. A tribute wall will be put up at the polar bear exhibit on the same day at 12pm for visitors to pen their thoughts.

Bear had been suffering

Over the past three months, the Inuka’s activity levels had dipped significantly, with the animal preferring rest to daily interaction sessions with his keepers.

The zoo’s deputy head keeper Mohan Ponichamy said on Wednesday that the team of caregivers understood why Inuka had to be put down.

“In December 2016, we noticed that he was unresponsive and slept the whole day,” he said. “Over the years, we observed that his lameness in his right leg was getting from bad to worse.”

The polar bear, which has been under the zoo’s senior animal care programme since 2013,  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.

An earlier health examination on 3 April had revealed that Inuka suffered additional problems due to his ailing limbs, which were unable to properly support his over 500kg frame. As a result, this had caused ulcerations on his pads that led to deeper infection between his toes. He also had a wound on his lower abdomen, likely caused by urine-burns from incontinence and recurrent urinary tract infections.

Wednesday’s examination revealed that these open wounds – which were “quite deep and would be aggravated as Inuka’s arthritis worsened” – did not significantly improve despite additional treatment over the last three weeks.

“We wanted to give it a try and we placed him on palliative care… We could not help him at all with his pressure sores on his fore pads… and to allow him (to continue to) move around in the forepads in those conditions was just not fair,” said Dr Abraham.

Apart from long-term glucosamine and anti-inflammatory treatment for his arthritis, veterinarians had boosted Inuka’s daily care regime to include intensive treatment for his feet, and started him on specific painkillers and antibiotics to further alleviate his symptoms.

First polar bear born in the tropics

Born on 26 December 1990 at the Singapore Zoo, Inuka is the first polar bear to have been born in the tropics.

At 27 years old, he had surpassed the 25-year average lifespan of polar bears under human care and is among the 2 per cent of the total zoo population to be placed under a special senior animal care programme. Male polar bears in the wild have a life expectancy of between 15 and 18 years.

Inuka, which means “silent stalker” in the Inuit language, is also 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.

Nanook and mother Sheba arrived at the zoo in 1978 from Winnipeg Zoo in Canada and Cologne Zoo in Germany, respectively.

Nanook died 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.

Following deliberations with its Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee in 2006, the zoo announced that it would no longer bring polar bears to Singapore.

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