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Oldest male polar bear on record humanely euthanized at Point Defiance Zoo

Boris the polar bear swimming. (Photo courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium)

Boris, a polar bear believed to be the oldest male of his species, was humanely euthanized at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium on Tuesday following “a significant decline in his health.”

Woodland Park Zoo’s oldest animal dies one day shy of 52

The 34-year-old polar bear was a circus bear before he found his home in Tacoma.

Point Defiance says he was loved and revered by the community, gaining international recognition seven years ago when photographs of his dental procedure circulated around the world.

Staff made the decision to euthanize Boris due to deteriorating health issues that were affecting his quality of life, according to head veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf. Recent exams showed significant arthritis, several fused vertebrae in his neck, and skin issues, Wolf said. He also had a history of gastrointestinal problems, dental and liver disease.

“We cared for Boris as long as possible with a combination of groundbreaking medical treatment and daily TLC,” Wolf said. “But he had increasing difficulty getting up, had recently fallen, and his quality of life had declined dramatically. We did not want him to suffer. His loss will be felt deeply around the Zoo.”

Boris was a medical pioneer of sorts when stem cells grown from his fat tissue were used in an attempt to treat his arthritis. He was believed to be the first polar bear to receive the protocol.

A news release from Point Defiance says Boris participated in his medical care and would stick his paw through a specially built sleeve in his bedroom so veterinary staff could get the voluntary blood samples to monitor his health.

Keepers also gave Boris his favorite foods and daily enrichments, like a den full of fresh wood wool shavings to roll in. He moved slowly on land, but enjoyed splashing in the deep saltwater pool and diving onto toys provided by keepers. He would also occasionally play-wrestle with 24-year-old polar bear Blizzard.

“This is a very sad day for us,” said Alan Varsik, director of Zoological and Environmental Education for Metro Parks Tacoma, in a news release. “Boris held a special place in the hearts of our staff and our community.”

Boris moved to Point Defiance in 2002 when he was a “scrawny, malnourished, and mistreated animal” seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from a traveling circus. Boris and five other bears were provided homes, nutrition, and expert care at zoos around the nation, and Boris was the last surviving member of the group.

“We were pleased we could give him a home when he was rescued from the circus,” Varsik said. “But we are even happier that Boris became a beloved ambassador for his species, inspiring our guests to take action that can help polar bears in the wild.”

Point Defiance says the median life expectancy for male polar bears in human care is 23.4 years, which Boris surpassed at 34 years. In the wild, they typically live 15-18 years.

According to data from zoos in North America and around the world, Point Defiance says Boris was the oldest male of his species on record.

Boris’ stem-cell therapy treatment will add to the knowledge of how to help polar bears and large animals with arthritis, Wolf says, and an upcoming necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) will help with future polar bear conservation.

“We want to take samples so that even after death, Boris can help us all learn more about his species and how to care for them,” Wolf explained.

Zoo guests can sign a giant card for Boris’ caregivers in memory of him in the main plaza Sept. 2-4. Read more about Boris, and find out how to donate to polar bears in Boris’ memory online here.

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