A polar bear birthday party, complete with snow cake

dkelly@adn.comJanuary 18, 2014 

Rising up on her haunches, Ahpun the polar bear energetically clawed a hole into the top of what looked like a giant three-layer birthday cake.

She stuck her snout into the hole. Pawed some more.

"Caroline, it's eating it!" Emily Lake, 8, shrieked at her older sister from behind the glass of the polar bear exhibit at the Alaska Zoo.

Slowly but surely, hunks of snow fell off the "cake," a fish-packed creation lovingly built from snow by a group of staff and volunteers at the Alaska Zoo.

On Saturday, the zoo threw its the annual birthday party for the two resident polar bears, Ahpun and Lyutyik. More than 300 people visited the exhibit throughout the day to munch on free s'mores and watch the bears "eat" their cake.

The bears, for their part, seemed to appreciate the extra attention.

"This is the most active I've ever seen them," Caroline Lake, 12, said later, a Canon Rebel T3i camera hanging around her neck.

By the zoo's calculations, both animals are in their mid-teens. Lyutyik, a 14-year-old male, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and came to Anchorage in 2007 from Sea World Australia.

The female, Ahpun, was orphaned near Point Lay in 1998 when her mother was shot in self-defense, said Heather Doncaster, volunteer coordinator at the zoo. The bear has lived at the zoo since she was three months old.

Zoo staff picked the Jan. 18 birthday party date as a nod to the timing of polar bear births in the wild, which usually happen in January and February, Doncaster said.

And for the past 10 years or so, a snow cake has been part of the festivities.

At about 8 a.m. Saturday morning, staff and volunteers gathered at the exhibit. The polar bears were moved inside from the outdoor area, and a loader carted in snow from the parking lot. Wires to hold the snow framed every level.

"Everybody stomps it in there like stomping grapes," said zoo staffer Sue Hedge.

Five-gallon buckets produced rainbow-colored ice blocks with apples, carrots and kiwi inside, plus a bit of cinnamon scent.

As "candles," herring, carrots and ice pops made with balloons decorated the top of the cake. Ball toys were placed on the side.

Cake-builders also placed about 10 pounds of salmon inside.

After a quick swim around 11 a.m., the bears dug into the treat. Lyutyik immediately picked off the herring. Ahpun, meanwhile, methodically dug into the upper layer.

Around the back, in a special "behind the scenes" viewing area, the air reeked of fish. Kids clutching s'mores stood and stared wide-eyed into the pen.

"How would you like to have a salmon pie?" Heather Mueller asked her children, Riley, Noah and Summer.

"No," Noah, 6, said firmly.

"I'd like to have a salmon pie," said his dad, Mike Mueller, a professor in science education at University of Alaska Anchorage.

Mueller studies youth activism, environmental monitoring and place-based education. With Martin Luther King Day approaching on Monday, he said, it's events like these that engage kids both with the local environment and with Alaska.

After about two hours, Lyutyik stretched himself on the ground in front of the cake, nestled his head over his paw and closed his eyes.

"Birthday cake coma," Hedge said.

The zoo hopes someday to give the pair a lot more space. A multimillion dollar expansion project in the works seeks to expand and modernize the polar bear exhibit. The project proposes to triple the size of the exhibit and offer features like a water stream and an elevated walkway for visitors to view the animals.

One goal is for the two bears to eventually mate and have cubs. That will require building a birthing den for Ahpun, Doncaster said.

The zoo is nearing completion of the first phase of the project, which involves building a center to care for the bears during the transition.

But for now, birthdays will be celebrated in the bears' current home. Next year, Hedge said, they might kick the snow cake up another notch by mixing a little more fish scent into the ice blocks.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

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