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Zookeeper: Polar bear cub will fare better than Knut

Siku has drawn worldwide attention like Knut, who was born in captivity in Berlin and died at the age of 4. But Siku “will grow up in a different environment” than Knut, caretaker Frank Vigh-Larsen said Tuesday.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

As his more than 1 million YouTube fans can attest, polar bear Siku’s main job these days is to be un-bear-ably adorable as he rolls around on his back, sucks a handler’s finger, and takes long, leisurely naps with his tongue hanging out.

But the little 5-week-old Internet sensation has some serious business in his future — serving as an ambassador-at-large for his wild polar bear brethren, whose population is shrinking right along with the sea ice that provides their hunting grounds. In fact, his name means “sea ice” in the Inuit language Inupiat.

Siku — all fluffy white 7 pounds of him — made an exclusive debut on TODAY Tuesday live via satellite, tended to by his main caretaker, Frank Vigh-Larsen. With Siku’s mom Ilka unable to nourish him, it is left to Vigh-Larsen and other handlers at Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Denmark to ensure Siku’s survival in his first weeks of life.

Gaining weight
As he grappled on-camera with his squirmy charge, Vigh-Larsen told Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie about the challenges of taking care of a little white bear who needs round-the-clock attention.

“It takes a lot of patience, it takes away your sleep, but it gives back a fantastic opportunity to see this little thing grow up,” Vigh-Larsen said live from Kolind, Denmark.

The folks at Scandinavian Wildlife Park are delighted Siku’s taped antics have gone viral — it means he’s already doing his job of drawing attention to the plight of the diminishing polar bear population in the wild. And little Siku faced some pretty big challenges himself after being born Nov. 22.

“Unfortunately, his mother had no milk, so we were left with two options — we could either leave him to die from starvation, or we could bottle rear him and turn him into an ambassador for his wild cousins living in the Arctic,” Vigh-Larsen told Lauer and Guthrie.

So far, the results of Siku’s bottle-feeding and human nurturing have been encouraging. He’s more than doubled his weight, from 3 to 7 pounds, since his birth – though he has a long way to go to reach his full half-ton adult weight. And he was afforded his first view of the world when he opened his eyes for the first time shortly before Christmas.

Vigh-Larsen is confident Siku can fare a better fate than the former World’s Most Famous Polar Bear. The German polar bear Knut — who was rejected by his mother at birth and, like Siku, raised by human handlers — drew visitors by the thousands at the Berlin Zoo, but sadly died at age 4 in March from encephalitis.

“Siku will be a completely different bear than Knut,” Vigh-Larsen said on TODAY. “He will grow up in a different environment.

“We have the world’s largest polar bear facility here, covering two-and-a-half hectares, and when he’s about 2 years old he will move in with the other four polar bears (at the park) and have a very normal polar bear life — as normal as it can be in captivity.”

And it’s at the Wildlife Park he will remain, Vigh-Larsen added. “None of the animals we have are supposed to go back into the wild. He would never make it. He’s going to stay here with us and take part in an international breeding program for polar bears in captivity, so hopefully in a few years time he will become a daddy himself.”

Most important, Siku can serve as a Poster Bear for his kind. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live in the wild across Alaska, Greenland, Russia, Canada and Norway, but the melting polar ice caps have severely cut into their traditional hunting grounds.

“His name Siku means sea ice (in Inuit), and that’s very symbolic, because the sea ice is melting and that’s threatening the very existence, the survival of the polar bears,” Vigh-Larsen said.

And for those have fallen in love with Siku’s antics as displayed on YouTube, Vigh-Larsen said he had a special holiday wish on behalf of Siku.

“Siku would like you all to reduce your carbon footprint and save energy. And if you all do that, he would be very, very happy.”