Seneca Park Zoo celebrates first artificial insemination of polar bears

Aurora the polar bear (Photo courtesy Seneca Park Zoo website; used with permission)

I love being able to shine light on my wonderful hometown of Rochester, NY and today there’s super news that makes animal history: The Seneca Park Zoo, in partnership with the Cincinnati Zoo’s Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW),  is celebrating the first successful artificial insemination of polar bears in the world.

Zero takes a swim. (Photo Jeff Gerew)

Aurora and Zero, the Seneca Park Zoo’s polar bear couple, have been together for two years without any cubs to show for it. And while the bears are older – both are 22 years; polar bears typically live 20 to 30 years although some in captivity have lived to as old as 40 - the Zoo’s Animal Health team are sure Aurora is fertile and cycling normally.

Aurora has produced offspring in the past (from 1996 to 2002, Aurora and her late partner Yukon produced and raised four cubs) but for whatever reason she and Zero haven’t taken the polar parenting plunge together.

Polar bears are an endangered species, so the Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan deemed Aurora and Zero viable candidates for artificial insemination and recommended the procedure. Since 2008, CREW members have been monitoring Aurora’s cycles (it’s a non-invasive procedure that involves testing feces) and when the timing seemed right, both bears were anesthetized and … well, you know.

It takes a whole team to make a polar bear pregnant! (The polar bear artificial insemination team, which included staff from both the Seneca Park Zoo and CREW; photo Kelli O'Brien)

The insemination was successful in that egg and sperm met. But there is no pregnancy test for polar bears, and gestation can be around eight or nine months. So the Zoo’s Animal Health team won’t know for sure if Aurora is actually pregnant until around Thanksgiving, when cubs will hopefully appear.

I’m told that so far Aurora isn’t cycling, which is a good thing. So everyone is keeping fingers (and paws!)  crossed.

I don’t know much about polar bear dating or mating; not every human pair is a good match so I don’t know if we can expect every pair of polar bears to want to want to parent together. Maybe at their age they just want some platonic companionship or they aren’t attracted to each other. Or maybe Aurora is just happy to have her figure back after raising four cubs.  But if the couple ends up with cubs, we know Aurora will be a super mom – and a history maker to boot!

Whatever the outcome, The Seneca Park Zoo made history in the strategic breeding of an endangered species, paving the way for future attempts at other facilities with other polar bear couples.

You can learn more about the Seneca Park Zoo and follow along with the progress of Aurora and Zero on the Zoo website or the Zoo’s Facebook page.


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