Active ageing for polar bear Inuka

Active ageing for polar bear Inuka
Inuka (above) swimming in her enclosure. Under the zoo's special care programme for senior animals, Inuka gets a mixture of daily quality of life checks, vet inspections, conditioning sessions and enrichment activities.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Even old polar bears need active ageing. At 26, the Singapore Zoo's locally born-and-bred Inuka is already way past its prime.

The average lifespan for polar bears is between 15 and 18 in the wild and 25 in captivity. In human years, Inuka is now in its 70s.

This means Inuka belongs to a special senior animal care programme, reserved for animals near the end of their natural lifespan.

In Inuka's case, this includes a mixture of daily quality of life checks, vet inspections, evening conditioning sessions and enrichment activities to keep it mentally and physically active.

Said senior carnivore keeper Mohan Ponichamy: "It is not unlike that of an elderly person. We have to constantly monitor their mobility, their diet and their habits."

Read also: Singapore Zoo celebrates Inuka's 26th birthday with icy treats

Inuka's movements are slower than before, due to painful arthritis in its left wrist and left knee. "Nowadays, it also tends to nap more because of its advanced years," said Mr Ponichamy, 39.

Inuka also suffers from dental problems. From time to time, it gets dry eyes and ear infections too.

These conditions, which keepers said are due to old age, mean that Inuka sometimes limps around in its "Frozen Tundra" enclosure.

Its late mother, Sheba, which died in 2012 at the age of 35, had also battled arthritis in its hind legs.

Said Dr Serena Oh, assistant director of veterinary services at Wildlife Reserves Singapore: "Its arthritis is of the most concern. If it is unable to move even with medication, we will have to consider its quality of life."

Mr Ponichamy said this is why they have to be transparent about Inuka's health. "Many people grew up remembering it and we don't want people to get a shock when it is gone," he said.

He and the four other keepers in his team know that they bear the responsibility of caring for Inuka in its twilight years.

Anything abnormal, such as hunger strikes or lack of responsiveness, is a sign that Inuka's health is getting worse.

But there have been no such red flags raised so far for Inuka, one of the zoo's most iconic creatures.

The senior keeper said that Inuka's age did not affect its mischievous behaviour.

It has been observed "inventing" its own games with the enrichment devices, such as stacking tyres or arranging its food in parallel lines. These are good indicators that it is happy, he said.

"Inuka is the reason I look forward to coming to work so early every day," he added. But the zoo will have to put it down if its health worsens.

When the fateful day comes, Mr Ponichamy said it will be a very "emotionally difficult period" for him and his team of keepers.

This is especially so for junior keeper Stefan Ng, 29, who said: "I grew up watching Inuka since I was a boy and it was my childhood dream to look after it."

Every year, Inuka is sedated and taken to a nearby animal hospital for a more comprehensive check-up.

Its current health problems were first detected in one such check-up three years ago, and the next one is scheduled for May.

Said bank officer Gerard Seam, 29, who was at the zoo with a friend on Thursday: "The day that Inuka dies will be a sad one. But it still looks healthy as we saw it taking multiple laps around the pool."

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has supported Inuka's upkeep since its birth on Dec 26, 1990. SPH Foundation, the charity arm of SPH, took over in 2007.

on SPH Brightcove

This article was first published on Feb 26, 2017.
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