Jim Breheny

Director of the Bronx Zoo

WCS EVP of Zoos and Aquarium

At the Bronx Zoo, we occasionally receive inquiries from people about Tundra, our male polar bear, and his comfort in New York’s summer temperatures. A recent online article stating that Tundra was suffering from exposure to extreme heat has heightened some people’s concerns.

Tundra was born at the Bronx Zoo. He is 24 ½ years old, which is quite old for a polar bear. The median life expectancy for male polar bears in zoos is 20.7 years, and the respected conservation group Polar Bears International notes the lifespan of wild polar bears to be only 15-18 years. 

Tundra has experienced many New York summers and has never had any heat-related health issues. His exhibit is well shaded by rock cliffs and large pine trees as the sun moves from east to west over the course of the day. The polar bear exhibit has a large pool, where Tundra can swim and submerge or just sit and rest in the water on shallow shelves at the pool’s edge. The pool’s temperature is kept cool with a constant flow of 55 °F water. Tundra’s keepers record the pool’s temperature on a daily basis, and during the week that the recent article was published citing 91  °F air temperatures, the pool ranged from 60-62 °F.

The article has several images of Tundra sleeping beside his pool. Polar bears are intelligent and adaptable. The fact that he was photographed relaxed, choosing to sleep in the sun and not the shade, or not laying in shallow water or swimming in the pool is indicative that the sun and air temperature were not bothering Tundra as the article charged.  

There was also reference to the fact that Tundra is alone in his exhibit, deprived of companionship. A basic knowledge of the biology and behavior of polar bears shows, with the exception of females with young cubs or during the breeding season, adult polar bears are solitary animals. This is especially true of adult males. It is quite normal for male polar bears to be alone. But this does not mean he has no interaction.

Each day, Tundra’s keepers engage him in daily positive reinforcement training sessions that provide him with mental stimulus and physical exercise. They also provide him with a variety of enrichment items that encourage the expression of species typical behaviors and stimulate exploratory behavior. These include food treats, novel items, toys and scents. And although Tundra is an older animal, he still frequently plays with and investigates the myriad enrichment items that his keepers offer. That said, he is not constantly moving. Like most animals, including those in the wild, a large portion of their days are spent resting. 

Regarding the pacing behavior noted “later in the day” in the article, animals anticipate dinner time. Anyone with a pet can relate to that behavior. As the end of the day approaches, many animals look forward to eating when they enter their night quarters. Tundra is no exception.

Tundra is provided with high quality care and we believe that he is content at the Bronx Zoo. Our assessment of Tundra is based on our knowledge, experience, expertise in the fields of animal husbandry, curatorial science, veterinary medicine, behavioral enrichment and training, and most of all, an integrated and common sense approach in wanting to do what is best for all of our animals.

The health and well-being of all of our animals are our primary responsibility, and we take this very seriously. 

I’ve included a link here to a video uploaded by a zoo visitor of Tundra playing in his pool in July of 2013.  I hope it helps reassure you that Tundra is fine.