A polar who had been living with another polar bear of the same sex for two decades died while the bears were separated.
Szenja and Snowflake, both female and 21-years-old, came to the San Diego SeaWorld in the mid-90’s from other zoos. The two had been living together as the only polar bears at the park.
In late February, Snowflake got sent to the Pittsburgh Zoo to participate in a breeding program, a move that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) opposed.
“Snowflake and Szenja have already been deprived of everything that’s natural and important to them,” a letter from PETA argued. “Please do not add to their suffering and sentence more polar bears to a dismal fate by moving forward with this ill-conceived plan.”
Last week, Szenja lost her appetite and appeared listless. And on Tuesday, Szenja died.
The PETA argues that Szenja died of “a broken heart.” “After losing her companion of 20 years when SeaWorld shipped Snowflake to the Pittsburgh Zoo in order to breed more miserable polar bears, Szenja did what anyone would do when they lose all hope, she gave up,” PETA vice president Tracy Reiman told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The San Diego SeaWorld will be conducting a necropsy to determine the cause of death, and results will not be available for several weeks. In the wild, polar bears rarely live more than 25 years, but in captivity some have lived into their 30’s.
It is unclear what the relationship was between the two polar bears or if humans can understand it. They have been described with platonic terms like “companion” and “roommate” in straight media and as “girlfriend” and “partner” in queer media. In the wild, polar bears live solitary lives, and we know that Szenja and Snowflake did not choose to live together in captivity.
This is not the first time that the polar bears were separated. In 2014, Snowflake was sent to the Pittsburgh Zoo for six months to live with a 9-year-old male polar bear named Koda. When she didn’t get pregnant, SeaWorld attempted artificial insemination, but that didn’t work either.
SeaWorld is trying to get Snowflake pregnant as part of a national program to increase the population of the endangered bears. Justine O’Brien, a researcher who works for SeaWorld, explained, “This information is also helpful for managing the zoo population as well as understanding what’s going on in the wild, and if there are any issues with reproductive function that could be occurring to stresses that we see on those wild populations.”
PETA argues that, with a mortality rate of 65% for polar bears born in captivity, captive breeding of polar bears should end.
Here is a video of Szenja playing with a plastic toy just days before her death.