Given that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo currently houses only three species of bears (don’t get me wrong—they’re really great bears!), it’s crazy to think that in the early 1900s the zoo had one of the largest collections of bears in the country. In his book published in 1930, Dr. William Mann—the zoo’s director from 1925 until 1956—listed twenty-one different species/subspecies of bears (170 individual bears total) that had lived in Rock Creek Park’s “Bear Row” since 1890.
As you can imagine, housing so many bears can create quite a space conundrum. In the early 1930s, when zookeepers noticed that two particular bears—Snowy, a male polar bear and Ramona, a female Kodiak bear—seemed friendly towards each other, they were placed in the same enclosure (along with Snowy’s female polar bear friend, Marion). To the zoo’s surprise, Ramona became pregnant and gave birth in February 1935. One cub lived fifteen days and the other died a few days later, but the zoo was now aware, and quite giddy, that the two could breed successfully. This mix was simply unheard of . . . but more on that a bit later.
Snowy and Ramona were reunited after the birth. The genetic experiment recommenced with all scientific eyes on DC.
The local press has some fun with the “modern saga of The Three Bears.” Dubbed a polygamist by the Washington Post, Snowy the polar bear had apparently become irritable when Ramona was moved to a private enclosure with her cubs. Marian, the polar female, felt scorned by her crabby male friend, who ignored her. The drama was mostly kept to a minimum when the threesome was reunited. The Post informed its readership of the latest in the rare soap opera unfolding in Rock Creek Park.
Exactly a year later, in February 1936, Ramona gave birth to four cubs. (She had been separated from the other adult bears a few months earlier so that the keepers could more closely monitor her and better attend to the needs any cubs. The vet staff wanted to take every precaution necessary.) The first of their kind, three of the yellowish-white hybrid bears—two males named Taku and Fridgee, and a female named Pokodiak—lived to be healthy adult bears; the fourth had died a few weeks after birth.
At the time of their birth, there were no other confirmed instances of hybrid Kodiak-polar bears in either the wild or in captivity. Other hybrid bears existed: A black bear–European brown bear hybrid was born at the London Zoo in the 1850s but did not live to maturity; a European brown bear–polar bear hybrid was born at a zoo in Stuttgart, Germany in 1876 and did live to adulthood. A Kodiak and a polar bear, however, had not proven to be a successful breeding pair. In the wild, it could have happened, but their habitat ranges were far enough apart that it would have been an extremely rare occurrence. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) would be more likely to mate with polar bears because they can be found in northern Canada, closer to the polar bear range. Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) have a much more limited habitat range on Kodiak Island in southwest Alaska.
It was as unnatural, Dr. Mann said, as if two mules had produced offspring. —Washington Post, January 8, 1949
At three months of age the “three little Whatsit bears” were introduced to the public. The cubs delighted the District. Camera crews risked falling into the bear pit to get a good photo. The Washington Post described the combined 42 pounds of fluff as “plump and wooly like Chow puppies.” Over the next several months, the cubs were treated to a diet of cod-liver oil, fruits, vegetables, and meat juice to ensure that they remained as healthy as possible. The local paper noted that they were treated just as well as human babies.
Snowy and Ramona again reunited after spending two and a half years apart. (By this time, Marion was placed in a separate enclosure.) Another male cub, Willie, was born in February 1939. As the first litter of cubs were three years old at this point, their playful antics and the birth of Willie certainly played a role in the zoo breaking the three-million-visitor mark that year. DC was bear crazy way before the pandas arrived!
The successful births of the four healthy cubs may have surprised the genetics world, but, according to Dr. Mann, an amazing twenty-three Kodiak-polar cubs were born over the next twenty years. Only four, sadly, lived to adulthood.
The biggest surprise (and presumed impossibility) of all occurred when Pokodiak and Willie produced a healthy male cub in 1950 (the other five in the litter did not survive). Believed to be sterile, this second-generation hybrid cub gave the genetics world something to scratch their heads and talk about—not only because he was a second-generation hybrid but also because his parents were brother and sister (although as you might remember from Mohini’s story, inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos back then).
It shouldn’t have been born at all. It violates all the laws of zoology and biology, of Mendel and Darwin, of.… It violates the laws of everything.” —Zoo Director Dr. William Mann in the Washington Post, January 27, 1950
In the history of second-generation hybrid bears at the National Zoo (1950–1976), two of fourteen cubs survived. The first “miracle” cub born in 1950—aptly named “Gene,” short for genetics—became quite a celebrity at the zoo. An estimated 30,000 visitors attended Gene’s first day on exhibit as an adorable, wobbly three-month-old. He even shared an enclosure with another celebrity bear of the same age—Smokey, the National Parks spokesbear. They got along very well—they liked to wrestle, one larger but the other faster, according to Dr. Mann. That year, with a total of forty bears calling DC home, the National Zoo’s attendance reached an amazing 3.4 million visitors.
The Kodiak-polar bear era at the National Zoo ended when the last hybrid bear, Pokodiak, passed away in 1974 at 38 years of age. (Unfortunately I could not track down where Gene’s path led him in adulthood.) The Smithsonian Annual Report noted that the hybrid bears were famous for their scientific uniqueness and wowed audiences with their massive size. (Kodiak bears are larger than grizzly bears. Male bear Willie was nearly 1,400 pounds!)
With climate change a grim reality, the hybridization of bears will become more common in the Arctic regions of North America, as a shared habitat becomes more frequent. In 2006, the occurrence of the grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the wild was confirmed by DNA testing near Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. Confirmed hybrids have since risen to eight—and all descending from the same adventurous female polar bear.
To end on a happy note, head over to the National Zoo and say hello to the fabulous giant pandas, sloth bears, and Andean bears (and all the other wonderful animals as well!) as spring rapidly approaches.
Altshuler, Melvin. “Zoo’s Who’s Whos’ News.” Washington Post, September 27, 1950: B1.
“Bear-Faced Remarks.” Washington Post, July 23, 1957: A1.
Brinkley, Bill. “Genetic Wonder of Wonders, Hybrid Cub of Hybrid Bears May Be Seen at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 27, 1950.
Brinkley, Bill. “Hybrid Bears Have Babies, Baffling All.” Washington Post, January 5, 1950: 7.
Brinkley, Bill. “Poster Bear Smokey Joins Zoo Star List: Move Over, Gene.” Washington Post, June 17, 1950: 1.
Cook, Robert. “‘Gene’—The Hybrid Bear.” Journal of Heredity 41:2 (February 1950): 34. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a106078
“Coy Trio of Hybrid Bear Cubs Keeps Crowd Waiting at Debut.” Washington Post, May 6, 1936: 1.
“Gene Wows 30,000 at District Zoo: Baby Bear Packs D.C. Zoo.” Washington Post, March 13, 1950: 1.
Grove, Lee. “Bare Fact: Bears Weren’t Born To Be Cuddled by Us Bipeds.” Washington Post, August 15, 1950: B1.
“Hybrid Bear Cubs Grow Fatter Daily With Constant Care.” Washington Post, July 27, 1936: X9.
“Hybrid Bears.” Hybrid and Mutant Animals website. http://messybeast.com/genetics/hybrid-bears.htm
Kelly BP, Whiteley A, Tallmon D. “The Arctic melting pot.” Nature 468:7326 (December 2010): 891.
Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.
Mann, William M. “Wild Animals in My Life.” National Geographic (April 1957), 497–524.
“Offspring of ‘Ramona, ‘Snowy,’ Called Biological Rarities.” Washington Post, February 25, 1936: 13.
“Polar Bear Snowy Papa of 2 Hybrids; Kadiak Is Mama.” Washington Post, February 15, 1939: 1.
Pongracz JD, Paetkau D, Branigan M, Richardson E. “Recent hybridization between a polar bear and grizzly bears in the Canadian Arctic.” Arctic 70:2 (2017): 151. https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic4643
Sampson, Paul. “Suggestion for Fun: Take Your Family to the Zoo,” Washington Post, July 3, 1953: 17.
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Reports, 1950–1974.
“Stork Hovers Over Bear Den As Even Zoo Has ‘Triangle’: Kadiak Goes to ‘Hospital,’ Leaving Polar Pair to Scorn Each Other.” Washington Post, January 27, 1936: 11.
Ursid hybrid. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Ursid-hybrid
“Zoo to Revive Story of 3 Bears In a Modern Triangle Setting.” Washington Post, October 18, 1936: M1.