When the new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit at Brookfield Zoo opens May 8, keepers expect the bears to make a mess.
The three new 9,000-square-foot habitats, which will alternately house two grizzly and three polar bears, will be filled with sand, large logs, plants and dirt for the bears to explore.
"They like to dig and chew and mess with everything possible," said project manager Mike Kenney.
Only four of the bears will be on display at a time unless there's breeding or the polar bear mom has a cub since the polar bears are kept one bear to an enclosure.
The $27.3 million project will provide a new home for the bears, which are currently living in enclosures that are 75 years old and showing signs of age with high upkeep costs. The majority of the work is already done on the new exhibit, which is three times larger than the existing space, but they're waiting until May to open it to get the plants to grow before the animals move in.
As a major participant in captive breeding programs for endangered polar bears, Brookfield decided it was time to give the bears some modern digs, which will also let visitors better connect with the animals.
Staff members have been working on training bears so they can encourage them to move between the exhibits and off-viewing areas and get them to display different natural behaviors as part of "zoo chats" with visitors. Using a whistle that only the bears can hear and rewards like meatballs on a stick, trainers can get the bears to show off their teeth and stand up in front of huge windows from behind which visitors can safely watch. Murals and signs will provide additional information about the animals and how guests can help with conservations efforts.
The larger spaces are also designed to make the bears more active. Moving bears between habitats lets them explore new areas, and the scents of the animals that had been there before. The exhibit features three swimming pools and cascading waterfalls, since grizzly and polar bears both enjoy taking a dip. The pools are much bigger than what the bears are used to, which will provide a chance for more exercise. A new filtration system uses ozone to scrub the water of bacteria and viruses and will cool it off during warmer months.
An indoor area provides a 21-foot underwater view and a window into a small cave with cooling pipes under the floor. There visitors will be able to catch the bears napping, especially on hot summer days. Other amenities in the new exhibit include a 15-foot sandbox and pockets in the hand-sculpted rocks where keepers can hide items that the bears can search for.
The project also features plenty of behind-the-scenes upgrades to improve the welfare of the bears. A new maternity den is set aside for bears to give birth within an igloolike structure. A mother bear will be able to stay there for months and cameras will help provide new information on birthing and the interaction between mother and newborn cub.
After she emerges with a cub, a mother bear will move to a cub training area with its own 5-foot-deep pool.
"How polar bear moms teach their cubs how to swim is they drag them into the deep water," said Mike Brown, lead keeper of bears.
The new bear habitats, which are included in the zoo admission, will have views of other North American animals, including bison and Mexican gray wolves. The construction also includes an education center with views into the bear and bison yards, a new restaurant and a gift shop.
If you go
Great Bear Wilderness exhibit opens in May
Brookfield Zoo: 31st Street and First Avenue, Brookfield
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: adults $13.50, seniors 65 and over $9.50, and children 3 to 11 $9.50
Contact: (708) 688-8000 or czs.org