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Polar bear habitat at Tacoma zoo is set for changes. And beyond that, new polar bears

Oct. 27, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 27, 2022 at 5:43 p.m.

By Debbie Cockrell Tacoma News Tribune

TACOMA – Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is taking initial steps in improving its polar bear habitat, which is anticipated to be home to new inhabitants next summer.

The polar bear exhibit opened in 1982 as part of the zoo’s Rocky Shores/Arctic Tundra section. A bond issue approved by voters in 2014 included plans for an upgrade, among other capital-improvement projects.

The zoo’s last surviving polar bear, Blizzard, died in May, and the polar bear habitat is currently closed.

Blizzard, 26, was humanely euthanized after suffering a rapid decline from liver cancer, diagnosed in September 2021.

The zoo’s other polar bear, Boris, 34, believed to have been the oldest male polar bear in the world, was humanely euthanized in September 2020 following a significant health decline.

Zoo officials recently submitted information to the city as part of the construction permitting process, offering more details about what’s to come for its home to polar bears.

Pre-application plans filed in mid-October describe removing existing concrete surface in the exhibit and replacing with sand, along with adding a sun shade to be used in the warmer months, and adding an outdoor log structure and an exterior automatic watering station.

The project cost is estimated at just under $395,000, according to the filing.

Whitney DalBalcon, marketing and communications manager for the zoo, told the News Tribune in response to questions via email, “We are working now with a local architectural firm on a design for short-term modifications to the polar bear habitat and expect to finalize the design by the end of the year.

“Specifically, we will be replacing rock work with natural substrate and adding more shaded areas to the habitat.”

Renderings were not available to share.

“We have 50% design documents that we are still discussing internally,” she added.

The zoo representative noted, “The design plans will then need to be approved and permitted through the City of Tacoma.”

After the work is finished, the zoo is set to “have polar bears in the habitat in summer 2023,” she wrote.

Upgrades to the polar bear habitat was one of several projects funded by a $198 million bond issue approved by voters in 2014. Of that amount, more than $65 million was earmarked for capital improvements at the zoo.

The improvement projects included a new Pacific Seas Aquarium, a renovated Rocky Shores Exhibit and a collaboration with Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute on an environmental learning center.

Those projects were completed between 2017-2018.

As late as December 2020, a Capital Projects list update noted that the polar bear exhibit project was “on hold pending the completion of other projects on zoo grounds.”

An earlier description of planned upgrades on a Metro Parks Tacoma Zoo Projects page said the polar bear exhibit was set to be renovated and that “Visitors also can expect more up-close viewing experiences.”

DalBalcon this week told the News Tribune that information was outdated.

“We are currently working on short-term improvements to update the polar bear habitat so we can welcome new polar bears to Tacoma in summer 2023,” DalBalcon said. “We do not have other longer-term improvements in process or planned at this time.”

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