How close is too close when it comes to a 700-pound beast? We head to Brookfield Zoo to find out.
On a warm, gray May day, I headed to Brookfield Zoo’s newest exhibit, “Great Bear Wilderness.” Throngs of Coke-chugging kids, cotton-candy stands and a field empty of its usual bison helped mitigate my fear of large, furry animals (I’m what you’d call a guinea-pig person).
When the zoo announced that its new exhibit gets one close to bears, I figured “close” meant understanding the animals’ physical and cultural significance—their status (generally “threatened”), the Native American meaning (often considered the Great Spirit) and how to help save their dwindling population (reduce your carbon footprint).
But as soon as I walked into the zoo’s new indoor addition—replete with two 80,000-gallon underwater viewing tanks—I realized that “close” referred to the five inches of acrylic that separated me from the lumbering 700-plus-pound polar bear on the other side.
The white creature tiptoed around the rim of the pool, jumped in, stealthily poked out its paw and slowly lifted its prize—a small fish. Perhaps spotting me, one in a group of gasping journalists, the polar bear scratched at the acrylic panel. Like a kid at the top of a Ferris wheel, I tried to estimate how many times one of these had broken down.
I moved out of the water area and onto the outdoor grizzly bear grotto. The metal door was open and, through an inner mesh panel, a trainer stuck a sippy cup (as my toddler nephews might call it) filled with peach nectar. The mesh, a two-inch grid of metal, could seemingly break at the swipe of the 800-pound beast’s paw.
After the training session (a series of whistle blows, each followed by a snack), the grizzly passed into the underwater gallery. In a few moves, it hoisted itself atop another grizzly—its brother. One trainer shrugged off the gnashing of teeth, mumbling “boys will be boys.”
As the grizzlies bit at each other’s chest and faces, patches of slick-backed fur caught the light in chiaroscuric fashion, like something out of a James Cameron film. Only this wasn’t a violent, animated film, but real nonhuman wonders standing five feet away.
My faith in the acrylic panel grew stronger—after all, the $27 million that the zoo doled out to make this addition possible would seemingly cover engineering. And I realized that understanding the bears’ cultural significance and threatened status meant nothing without witnessing the beautiful creatures, intensity and all.
Grin and bear it at “Great Bear Wilderness in Brookfield Zoo,” on permanent display.