Goodbye Gus

I knew we should visit the zoo whilst in New York.

And the children were clamouring to go. We are all great Madagascar fans.  Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, yada, yada. But a city zoo: you wonder what you’re going to find. All those animals in such a small place. How happy can they be?

We padded through the streets on a sky-blue day in the city; past the horses with their carts stolidly ignoring the taxis, and the pigeons passing the time of day high on the lamp posts in lines.

Arriving at the zoo for ten, we watched the famous clock do its thing.

And then into the zoo and another world, far away from the streets and the hot dog stands. The penguins, the seals, the snow leopard, the turtles; an entire rain forest, complete with bats, roosting and flying at close quarters.

We had rather a lovely morning shambling around.

Of course, we saw Gus.

Gus, the polar bear. Arriving at the zoo in 1988, he has outlived all his companions. Six years after his arrival, they brought an animal psychologist in to help after Gus began endlessly swimming laps of his very small ocean. The psychologist pronounced he was bored; an ‘enrichment’ programme was what Gus needed. Toys, puzzles, positive reinforcement, and a new pad for a polar bear in the city.

It worked; though Gus still did those repetitive figure of eights in the water sometimes.

A polar bear on therapy: New York loved him. And the day we arrived, we though he might not make an appearance, but he did. He came out of is cave, munched some stuff, peered blearily at the adoring crowd.

Virginia, a New York writer and blogger,  e-mailed me overnight. It seems we saw some of Gus’s last days: on Tuesday the polar bear was put down after they found an inoperable tumour on his thyroid region.

He was a very old polar bear: in the wild they live about 15-18 years, and in zoos can reach about 20 years. He was 27. It was probably time.

But New York City will miss him.

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28 thoughts on “Goodbye Gus

  1. Certainly a good long life for a polar bear. So glad you saw him and can prove it!
    Lovely pictures of your visit – even the rump collection! And I love the snow leopard.

  2. I hate to be a wet blanket, but zoos are among my real dislikes. We live in a world in which we can experience everything in brilliant coloured film, and travel itself has been made very cheap in order to shrink the world for our convenience. I’m sure there are many positive arguments for keeping wild creatures in captivity…I just don’t like the peering at imprisoned creatures through the bars, so to speak. I wonder when they will open Guantanamo to the public. Sorry to return with such a shrewish comment, Kate. My wife calls me Victor, which should explain everything. I’m as grumpy as Gus:)

  3. Lovely tribute, Kate to the Big Apple’s favorite bear. It’s possible that Gus was depressed because he was so far from his natural habitat, but he did live an extraordinarily long life and unlike most ordinary New Yorkers, he was so hugely popular, he even rated a top story in the New York Times.

  4. 🙂 I have mixed feelings about zoos. Some of them do some good conservation work and health care and preservation; but, the animals cannot possibly be happy closed in and on display. Unnatural. But I did love going to this zoo as a child – very much. Poor Gus to have lived such a long life in captivity.

    Wonderful photographs, Kate. Good job. Thanks for posting.

    1. Mixed feelings reflects exactly how I feel, Jamie. That little zoo in the centre of the city made quite an impression on me. It really was a small sanctuary in the heart of those great tall office blocks. I saw seals on the same day, a week apart: at Central Park Zoo, and on the sandbanks off the Norfolk coast in their droves. And I know which I preferred.

  5. “The psychologist pronounced he was bored; an ‘enrichment’ programme was what Gus needed.” We humans are beyond ridiculous at times – why put these animals in captivity in the first place? Enjoyed your pictures, Kate.

  6. How fortunate that you were to able to squeeze in a zoo visit while in New York, and were able to see Gus while he was still alive. Always sad when animals reach the end, isn’t it? no matter if in a cage or roaming about? Not too far from where we live is the grave of a famous elephant (I think his name was Ziggy), who had a long and storied life in captivity at Brookfield Zoo.

    I loved viewing you photos, Kate. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Penny 🙂 I felt for Gus when I saw him. I think he must already have been suffering from his final ailment. Let us hope in the great beyond, there is a vast Arctic Ocean waiting for him.

    1. Ruth, it was exciting to see such a great beast, but one day I want to see them where they belong: in the Arctic. At a respectful distance with a very big pair of binoculars, of course.

  7. When I was growing up in Oklahoma City, there was a polar bear in the zoo. He was kept in a very small cage, relative to his size, and had a very small pool, barely large enough for him to swim in. He paced endlessly in the same pattern around his cage, like an automaton. It was sad beyond words. If zoos cannot provide surroundings similar to an animal’s natural habitat, with space enough for proper exercise and a relatively normal life, they should not keep that species at all. Some zoos are just too small to properly house large animals.

    1. That sounds like rather a nightmare scenario for a polar bear, cooped up out there in Oklahoma. It does make me wonder; us humans have turned down much of our wild life and hence have developed greater and greater longevity. Yet, those last years are rarely happy and pain-free. Perhaps we are all better living coser to the wire for less time.

  8. I expect that most animals would, if asked, choose to have a shorter life spent roaming free in the wild rather than a long and boring life in captivity.

    Perhaps Zoos should be limited to animals that have sustained permanent injury without hope of rehabilitation to wild status?

    Either way, good-bye to Gus. Loved the shots ~ especially that deer’s tongue.

  9. I’m glad you were able to visit the zoo. I completely understand all the controversies about zoo-life for an animal. I know of some zoos that mostly populate their exhibits with animals rescued or unable to live on their own for one reason or another. I am not really able to distinguish all the ethical considerations, but I also know that zoos can contribute to a child’s earliest exposure of caring and respecting animals when a patient parent or teacher helps the child learn more context of the animals’ behavior and environmental requirements. Especially in a time when animal habitats are disappearing. A zoo can be a teaching tool.

    Somewhere along the line it really is about learning to respect animal life, and we tend to be a bit inconsistent with that sometimes. I, for one, am really pleased you had the opportunity and what a decidedly happy memory to have met and appreciated Gus, and to speak of him with respect. Wonderful photos…I continue to enjoy your trip to the Big Apple!

  10. Zoos and captivity… always an emotive subject. Zoos have a role as do animal sanctuaries and programmes to return human reared animals to the wild. For some species these may represent the only way to preserve the species as its natural habitat is wiped out to provide us with luxuries (not necessities, please note). And why? Because the destruction of the habitat is necessary to ensure rich people get richer and people in the affected areas have to work in dangerous conditions just to survive. If humans are exploited this way, what chance do the animals have?

    I keep captive animals – Budgies. They were born in captivity and have only known an indoors world. But leaving them in the cage all the time would be wrong. The door is opened almost every evening to allow wings to be stretched and head down climbing to be demonstrated on the curtains. (as an aside – why do Budgies get so much fun out of climbing head-first down something?) They avidly watch the television and seem to enjoy it (you get the evil eye/beak if you turn it off when they’re enjoying something 😉 ). Is captivity entirely wrong? I’d say no. But we need to fix our own problems about how we handle resources and the environment before we’ll be in a position to help the animals that are loosing their habitat out there 😦

  11. Sorry to hear about Gus. Like ‘2eOmca’ said, I have mixed feelings about zoos. We often frequent our zoo in Melbourne, Florida. I do wish all the animals could be free, but I also know that zoos have made some positive strides in caring for the animals and returning some to the wild.

    Love your photos, Kate.

  12. I was at the Bronx Zoo recently, it’s much bigger than the Central Park Zoo, and feels much more separated from the City. When you ride the monorail, they talk about herds of deer that have liked in that wild place since the 1800s or early 1900s. They focus on conservation and protection of species whose habitat is shrinking. But it’s still so sad to see them lifeless and bored looking, especially the big cats and the monkeys.

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