McDonnell Polar Bear Point Opens June 6 at Saint Louis Zoo

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McDonnell Polar Bear Point Opens June 6 at Saint Louis Zoo


The Saint Louis Zoo brings visitors nose-to-nose with a swimming polar bear and offers new insights into the lives of polar bears and the Arctic people who rely on them through its new 40,000-square-foot McDonnell Polar Bear Point opening to the public Saturday, June 6.


“This wonderful habitat shows our commitment to protecting polar bears, which are declining in the wild and are highly vulnerable,” said Jeffrey P. Bonner, Ph.D., Dana Brown President and Chief Executive Officer of the Saint Louis Zoo. “By working to not only conserve polar bears in the wild but to offer a wonderful habitat for breeding and caring for bears, we can help save these iconic animals.”


The first occupant of this state-of-the-art, $16 million exhibit is Kali (pronounced “Cully”), a 2 ½ year-old, 850-pound male polar bear that was orphaned in Alaska. Kali came to St. Louis on May 5 after living for two years at the Buffalo Zoo. Kali’s transportation from Rochester, New York, to St. Louis was generously donated by FedEx.


State-of-the-Art Habitat


Kali’s new home next to Penguin & Puffin Coast in The Wild section at the Zoo transitions seamlessly from sea to coastline to land. The “sea” area features an arctic cave room with an expansive glass viewing wall where visitors can peer deeply into the 50,000-gallon Polar Dive Pool. This large glass panel also offers a split view into and across the pool and on to Bear Beach, created with sand, pebbles and rock formations.


The moraine or “coastline” offers a scenic view that includes carved rock made to look as if it was formed by glaciers. It also features a large panoramic view with nine curved, faceted glass panels spanning 55 feet and offering a view of Bear Beach.


The grassy “tundra” area provides a unique polar bear interaction area, where visitors can observe bear behavior up close at a glass/mesh door as keepers offer enrichment or go through training exercises with this remarkable animal. This observation area is in the center of a seven-panel, 48-foot curved, panoramic glass viewing wall.


“It will be great fun to see Kali interact with guests through the split view window that offers views of him swimming in the deep pool and playing in the shallow pool,” said Saint Louis Zoo Curator of Mammals/Carnivores Steve Bircher.


He adds that this habitat can accommodate up to five bears in the future—ideally an adult male and female bear, who would head up a family of one to three cubs. He said the new habitat more than doubles the space of the old polar bear area, which had been home to Zoo polar bears from the 1920s until 2009.


Finally, visitors can also check out bear-themed items in a new gift shop as they enter or leave McDonnell Polar Bear Point. Zoo stores carry crafts made by artists in the Siberian Yupik and Iñupiaq villages in Alaska, helping support economic development in villages that are home to Alaska native people. Gift store products also carry messages about the ways each of us can reduce our carbon footprint.


The exhibit is made possible by many fine donors, with the leadership gift from the JSM Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. James S. McDonnell III and Mr. and Mrs. John F. McDonnell. The Polar Bear Interaction Area is a gift from The Bellwether Foundation. Carolyn and Jay Henges’ generous contribution is recognized at the Carolyn and Jay Henges Splash Pool View. McDonnell Polar Bear Point is also one of the most exciting of many projects funded by the Zoo’s The Living Promise Campaign. Generous donors provided $134 million in charitable commitments, $14 million over the Campaign goal, and made possible a range of improvements and new exhibits at the Zoo.




At McDonnell Polar Bear Point, the Zoo is offering information about the plight of the polar bear and the role polar bears play in the lives of Alaska Native People through interpretative materials. Visitors can see objects that would be present in traditional Alaskan villages—from boats to snowmobiles. In video interviews, which will play on monitors along an interactive wall, Alaska Natives will share information about their relationship with nature—particularly with polar bears—and how their lives are changing as ice continues to decrease in quantity and quality due to climate change.


Animal Care


A separate space dedicated to the animals, staff and life support systems, the 2,651-square-foot Care Center provides advanced care and management for marine mammals. It includes a splash den with a pool, three additional dens and a polar maternity suite that can hold a pair of bears and also cubs when breeding is recommended and successful.


In addition, a 1,000-square-foot outdoor, off-exhibit space (Polar Patio)—an area the bear can use when he needs privacy—includes a pool with a surface area of 530 square feet.


Life Support Building


Adjacent to the Care Center is a 3,032-square-foot facility that houses the life support system for the polar bear’s salt water pools. This state-of-the-art system recirculates and treats exhibit water providing a closed loop design to conserve water.


“Throughout this exhibit, we have employed sustainable design and construction to increase the amount of recycled materials used with this project, including the concrete from the historic bear pits that was crushed on site and was reused as sub-base and backfill,” said David F. McGuire, Saint Louis Zoo William Bernoudy Vice President Architecture and Planning. “We also installed an automated, energy efficient system for heating, cooling and ventilation and are offsetting energy use at the habitat by purchasing carbon credits that help preserve Makira Natural Park, a 1,438-square-mile rainforest in Madagascar.”


Sea Ice Loss Threatens Polar Bears


The Zoo’s sustainable practices are aimed at reducing its carbon footprint to help stall the impact of climate change, which causes sea ice to melt, and the Zoo hopes to encourage similar conservation behaviors among visitors to Polar Bear Point.


Sea ice is essential to polar bears for hunting seals on ice floes or near breath holes since polar bears are not fast enough swimmers to catch seals in open water. They stalk and ambush their prey on ice.

Over the last 20 years, scientists have documented a dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice, due to rising temperatures. Recent modeling of future sea ice trends predicts dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage over the next 50 to 100 years and the potential loss of all polar bears near the end of this century. The Saint Louis Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan® for polar bears—a cooperative breeding program with a number of North American zoos working together to ensure the survival of the species.


Behind McDonnell Polar Bear Point: The architect for McDonnell Polar Bear Point is PGAV Destinations; Alberici Constructors, Inc. is the construction manager. Rhodey Construction, Inc. is the general contractor.


About Kali: In March 2013, the orphaned bear Kali was turned over to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) by an Alaska Native hunter who killed Kali’s mother in a subsistence hunt without realizing the mother had a cub. USFWS determined that St. Louis would be the bear’s permanent home, working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs cooperatively manage specific, and typically threatened or endangered, species populations in the care of conservation organizations. Kali came to St. Louis on May 5 and has been living comfortably in his new habitat, where a quarantine period allowed him to acclimate to his new home and diet.


About Polar Bears:  Natives of Arctic coastal areas of Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada and the United States, the polar bear is among the largest of the carnivorous quadrupeds. They are unique in their white coat and adaptation to an aquatic way of life.  Their coat varies from a pure white to a yellowish appearance. Females can weigh up to 655 pounds. Males can grow up to 10 feet long and can weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. The coat has an outer layer of guard hair over a thick layer of under hair, making it water repellent. Their feet are fur-covered on the bottom, allowing them to swim in arctic waters and walk on snow and ice without freezing.  Polar bears also have a two- to four-inch layer of fat under the skin to add to buoyancy and insulation from the cold.


About Funding: In mid-2010, the Zoo publically launched The Living Promise Campaign to raise $120 million to be used to build dynamic new animal exhibits, enhance the visitor experience, improve the Zoo’s infrastructure and strengthen its endowment. In addition to providing funds to build McDonnell Polar Bear Point and Sea Lion Sound, the Campaign has covered the costs of converting the old elephant house into Peabody Hall, creating the Wells Fargo South Arrival Experience, building the Myron Glassberg Family Maintenance Facility, adding a fourth naturalistic area for elephants—Elephant Woods—and three new River’s Edge habitats for painted dogs, Andean bears and Malayan sun bears. Over the next few years, the Campaign will be funding a new habitat for grizzlies and a range of infrastructure repairs. The Zoo exceeded the $120 million goal by $14 million when the Campaign ended in 2014. See donor list at Living Promise Honor Roll.


Zoo Hours & More Information: Admission to the Zoo and McDonnell Polar Bear Point is free. There are fees for special attractions, including the First Bank Sea Lion Show, Emerson Children’s Zoo, Emerson Zooline Railroad and Mary Ann Lee Conservation Carousel. On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays through Labor Day, the Zoo is open from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Weekday summer hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The Zoo will close at 12 noon on Friday, June 19, for ZOOFARI, the Zoo’s major fundraiser. The Zoo’s off-season hours of  9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily begin September 8, 2015. For more information, visit,,, and

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