Your recent column on the National Zoo's polar bears reminded me that somehow a polar bear and Kodiak brown bear at the zoo once mated and produced offspring. What then amazed the zoo staff was that the hybrid offspring produced a cub. Hybrids aren't supposed to be able to reproduce. Scientists are now aware that cross breeding of these two species is occurring in the wild, perhaps another result of global warming.
— Pat Doherty, Springfield
Before we go any further, Answer Man must emphasize that today’s accredited zoos are run a lot differently than the zoos of yesteryear — or yestercentury. Today, a tremendous amount of thought goes into deciding who’s allowed to mate with whom. Detailed records are kept, and reproduction is intended to promote the genetic diversity of individual species.
But back in the 1930s, when our story starts? Well, it was a bit like the Plato’s Retreat swingers’ club mixed with “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” the H.G. Wells novel about a mad scientist who creates hybrid creatures on a rock in the Pacific.
The National Zoo’s first hybrid cubs — twins — were born in 1935. Their parents were Snowy, a male polar bear who had come from the Edinburgh Zoo, and Ramona, a female Kodiak bear from Alaska.
The two bears were caged together along with a polar bear named Marion, Snowy’s “other wife,” as the newspapers put it.
One hybrid cub lived 15 days before it was found outside the den, frozen to death. The other disappeared and was thought to have been eaten by Ramona, “nervous and irritable at her first [maternal] experience,” wrote The Washington Post.
The following year, Ramona gave birth to four more hybrid cubs. If they survived, The Post proclaimed, they would be “a biological rarity on par with the Dionne quintuplets.”
Added the Evening Star: “Cubs with a brown bear for a mother and a polar bear for a father would undoubtedly be a great drawing card at the zoo.”
Undoubtedly. The rarity of the world’s first known polar/brown bear hybrids wasn’t lost on William M. Mann, the zoo’s director. One of the cubs died, but in May 1936, the three survivors were deemed healthy enough to make their debut before a jostling crowd of newsreel photographers.
The “three little Whatsit bears” was what one reporter called them. That was among the nicer descriptors. Typically, they were called “freaks.” Their names — chosen in a contest — were Pokodiak, Taku and Fridgee.
“Right now I’d say all three of them look more like brown bears than polars, but there’s still no telling which they will resemble when they grow up,” zoo director Mann said. (Brown bears, it turned out.)
Two more hybrid bears were born in 1939, one of which — Willie — survived into adulthood. That gave the National Zoo four of the genetic anomalies. But it’s what happened next that really stunned the zoo world: In 1950, Pokodiak gave birth to a litter of cubs. The father was her brother, Willie.
This was unexpected. Hybrids are typically sterile, like the mules that result from a horse-donkey pairing. One cub survived: Gene, short for “genetics.” Its photo graced the cover of the Journal of Heredity.
More than 30,000 Washingtonians went to the zoo for the debut of Gene, a hybrid product of two hybrids. Wrote the Star: “This makes him a bigger attraction than Jane Russell, Cinderella, Bing Crosby, Ted Williams or Toscanini, none of whom were even heard of before they were three months old.”
Out of more than a dozen hybrid cubs born to hybrid parents at the National Zoo, Gene was apparently the only one to live to adulthood. The rest couldn’t overcome their aberrant DNA.
It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for these bears, freaks of nature that they were. Of course, nature itself is getting freaky these days. Bear-watchers in Alaska and Western Canada have noticed an increase in what are called pizzlies or grolars: hybrids resulting from polar bear-grizzly bear couplings.
The two species do not typically inhabit the same environments. “Polar bears are marine mammals; grizzlies are terrestrial,” Adam Popescu wrote in The Post in 2016. “But as the Arctic warms, sea ice is shrinking and the tundra is expanding. And the bears’ disparate populations are meeting, mating and creating a new breed that’s capable of reproducing.”
Noted Popescu: “It’s called flexible mate choice: The bears are mating with the best possible partners as opposed to not mating at all, and they’re mating because they share relatively close territories and the same branches of the same evolutionary tree.”
Or to quote an old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one with you’re with.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.