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Meet Astra and Laerke

Astra’s large round paws are very busy, kneading a big blue barrel that’s full of water. It looks like she is making biscuits. She pushes down with all her might and is fascinated as the saltwater gushes out the open hole on the barrel’s side.

This single-player game becomes even more energetic and loud as she splashes and knocks the barrel about, catching the attention of her twin sister, Laerke, who slowly saunters out of her den to see about the commotion. A quick peek: she’s not impressed. She’s busy, too, checking out what the keepers are doing.

Astra and Laerke are 2-year-old twin polar bear cubs. Their new adorable faces will undoubtedly bring smiles, playful energy, and most importantly hope to the Arctic Tundra habitat.

“They have very different personalities and approaches to life. Astra is much more confident and a bit more inquisitive about her environment,” staff biologist Noelle said. “Laerke is more quiet. She really likes to watch what her keepers are doing. I often find her closely observing what we’re doing.”

The twins were born Nov. 17, 2020 at the Detroit Zoo. The joyous occasion quickly turned concerning when Laerke had a medical emergency shortly after birth. The sisters had to be separated so Laerke could receive intensive lifesaving medical care and regain her strength.

While Astra spent the first two years learning from their mom, Laerke was getting essential care from her keepers. They introduced her to Jebbie, a grizzly cub rescued from Alaska after he was found wandering alone and he was brought to the zoo. The two bears learned vital socialization skills and provided each another with companionship for about seven months.

The sisters were finally reunited this spring in Detroit, and quickly became fast friends — playing, swimming, wrestling, and taking long naps, of course.

In the wild, polar bears leave their mothers around the age of 2, so moving the sisters to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium now was an ideal time so they could continue their growth and development. It also opens the opportunity for their mother to have more cubs.

Staff at the Detroit Zoo and the people who have fallen in love with the popular twins no doubt had a hard time saying goodbye. But according to recommendations by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ polar bear population experts, it is for the best.

polar bear astra swimming

Before transporting the bears to Point Defiance, Noelle and three other staff members, went to Detroit Zoo for several days to meet the bears so they could get to know each other and make the transition as easy as possible.

“We wanted to get to know their daily routine really well … and just get some face time with them so we could get to know them, and they could get to know us,” she said. “We set up the exhibit for them on certain days and then observed them to see how they used different enrichment items and different exhibit areas. We spent some time working alongside their keepers and some time where their keepers stepped away.”

Since the girls arrived, the Point Defiance keepers have sent photos and videos to the keepers in Detroit, like proud “pawrents.”

The twin cubs will bring new life to the favorite zoo exhibit that has been closed since May 2022 after the last remaining polar bear, Blizzard, was diagnosed with liver cancer and humanely euthanized.

Several updates have been made to the polar bears’ area — some things people will notice, and other things are more functional – like an updated food-prep kitchen in the back. A new highlight is a log structure offering the bears a place to climb and get better views of the park. So far, they’ve enjoyed napping under it in a pile of spiralized wood strips.

They have more soft sand for their paws and the natural saltwater they swim and play in is filtered water from the Puget Sound, which is new to them.

The twins have a lot more growing to do. Astra eats about 19 pounds of food a day, and Laerke about 9. They enjoy eating fresh produce, seafood, and fat — lots of fat. In the wild, they’d be feasting on seal blubber.

That blue barrel that Astra loves playing with helps mimic what she would be doing in the wild— no, not kneading biscuits, but breaking through blocks of ice to get her next seal meal.

Staff biologist Maggie recently slipped a sample of the Northwest’s finest frozen salmon in their dish and Laerke sniffed it and pawed it aside. Maggie says in time she is sure the bears will come to love it.

For more than 80 years, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma has provided homes for polar bears. Polar bears are designated to be at “high risk of global extinction,” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission.

That’s why programs like this are vital. Generations of people have been able to connect, understand, and become more educated about these majestic animals by visiting the zoo.

And with the arrival of Astra and Laerke the conversations surrounding conservation, the environment, and the plight of polar bears in the wild will continue to move forward — one paw at a time. Learn more about polar bears.