Goodbye, Gus

The Central Park Zoo has to find a new polar bear.

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Gus doing his laps, 2011.

My mother called me yesterday with some sad news: Our old friend Gus – a favorite of my children – died this week (and, she added with some gossipy glee, he had been in therapy!). I actually didn't know his name was Gus or that he didn't simply die but was euthanized. Gus, you see, was a polar bear. Or, more precisely, he was the polar bear, the one in the Central Park Zoo.

I was fortunate enough to grow up a short walk from the zoo, but by the time Gus arrived on the scene there, in 1988, I was a teenager and no longer a regular visitor to the animals. So it's only been in the last few years, on my family's regular but still-too-infrequent trips to the city, that I'd encountered the giant creature.

But our meetings were memorable. There was the visit with my first son, then old enough to walk and say a few words but not quite able to appreciate the splendor of the animals at the zoo. No matter what animal we saw he expressed little if any interest. We were watching Gus and his companion, Ida, when all of a sudden the two bears started wrestling. The rest of the crowd gazing down into the bear enclosure started oohing and aahing at the show – and then Emmet started squealing with delight. At last, I thought, he's cluing in to how cool a sight this is: these two majestic creatures playing just feet away from him. Then his squeals found expression in words: "Ball!" he cried. "The ball!" The bears had been blocking from sight the balls in their pen for play. Balls were my son's favorite, obsessive toy; bears, not so much.

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Then there was the visit two years ago, shortly after Ida was euthanized because of liver disease, when we caught Gus doing what he was most famous for: laps. Back and forth in his enclosure's pool he went. He would reach the end, turn around in the water and push off with his massive paws again. Back and forth, back and forth. Emmet, old enough now to appreciate what he was looking at, would run back and forth with him, watching the great beast moving through the water. "The bear!" Emmet yelled. "The bear!" I captured this on an iPhone video that for a long time was his favorite thing to watch before bed.

What we didn't know at the time was that this was Gus' thing, the laps. Visitors started noticing them way back in 1994. "He would plop into the pool and swim lap after lap in figure-eight patterns, pawing his way through the water with powerful backstrokes," the New York Times noted in its obit Wednesday (though I would add that by the time we saw him he had graduated from the backstroke to the crawl). "He did this for as many as 12 hours a day. Every day. Every week. Every month."

This had a couple of effects: It made the zookeepers nervous – was he having some sort of ursine breakdown? – and it captured the public's imagination. Naturally a bear therapist was summoned (from California – where else?) and Gus' celebrity was confirmed.

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In our recent visits Gus had mostly been somnambulant, only rarely moving around. We speculated it might be because he missed Ida. But he remained the centerpiece of any zoo trip; it won't be the same when we go back.

Which brings me to the final line of the Times obit: "The zoo has not decided whether it will try to find a polar bear at another zoo to occupy Gus's habitat. It might instead select a different species to go there, like a seal."

A seal?!? No polar bear in the polar bear habitat? That would like the Yankees announcing, in the wake of a Derek Jeter retirement, that they haven't decided whether to try to find another shortstop to occupy his spot on the field, but might instead select a fourth outfielder instead, or a second catcher. It's just not done.

No, the zoo needs a new polar bear. And soon – my kids are growing up awfully quickly.

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