NEW YORK — There are not a huge number of ways to become famous as a polar bear. Gus somehow managed to do it by behaving like a perfectly ordinary New Yorker: He was neurotic. He became the Neurotic Polar Bear.
To be sure, it was his own particular neurosis. Back in the mid-1990s, he began swimming obsessively for hours through his watery habitat in the Central Park Zoo, as if prepping for the Polar Bear Olympics, something he had never done back in his hometown, Toledo. The world took notice. Expensive therapy was ordered. Improvement occurred. A furry white celebrity was born.
Long the popular face of the zoo, even as his lap swimming became less obsessive, Gus began exhibiting a loss of appetite in recent days. He was having trouble chewing. Zoo veterinarians hoped it might be just a bad toothache. But when they examined him on Tuesday afternoon, they found a large inoperable tumor in his thyroid region and decided to euthanize him.
Gus was 27. (The Association of Zoos and Aquariums puts the median life expectancy for a male polar bear living in a zoo at 20.7 years.) He came to New York in 1988, three years after being born at the zoo in Toledo. His parents, Nanook and Snowball, died in 1996. Nanook was from the Bronx and was sent to Toledo for breeding, with the expectation that a cub would go to New York.
Two years ago, Gus lost Ida, the last of his two female companions. She died from liver disease at the age of 25. His other companion, Lily, died at 17 in 2004 after an abdominal mass was discovered. Despite two women in his life, Gus had no offspring.
“He was the iconic image for Central Park,” said Jim Breheny, the general director for zoos and aquariums for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the city’s zoos. “Some of my favorite images were seeing Gus in his exhibit with the New York cityscape behind him. It was surreal.”
Gus’s death leaves the city with a single polar bear, Tundra, who is 22 and resides at the Bronx Zoo.
Polar bears are among the most beloved animals, but Gus was something else. In 1994, notice was drawn to his peculiar swimming protocol. He would plop into the pool and swim lap after lap in figure-eight patterns, pawing his way through the water with powerful backstrokes. He did this for as many as 12 hours a day. Every day. Every week. Every month.
Zoo visitors found the repetitive swimming by the 700-pound polar bear mesmerizing. Zoo ticket sales shot up. Tourists and New Yorkers alike flocked to glimpse what had become a novelty act: the endlessly swimming bear.
But zoo officials became increasingly worried. Why was he doing this? Was it something physical? Was it woman problems? Was he having a nervous breakdown?
Dr. William Conway, then the general director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said at the time: “It’s too repetitive. The first thing you worry about is whether this reflects some deep-seated physical problem. Is he losing weight? Is his appetite off? Is his behavior toward the ladies he’s living with declining?”
Some suggested that the tedious swimming by the brooding bear was the inevitable consequence of an animal that yearned for freedom living an unhappy life in captivity.
The mystery drew widespread news media attention. Reporters from around the world wrote about him. He was called neurotic, flaky, the bipolar bear. The odd behavior prompted a humorous book, “What’s Worrying Gus: The True Story of a Big City Bear,” and a short play, “Gus.”
At a cost of $25,000, an animal behaviorist was hired to treat Gus. In essence, the conclusion was that Gus was bored.
An enrichment program was put into effect to try to put him in a better frame of mind. He was given toys containing treats like salmon and peanut butter. He was subjected to positive-reinforcement training sessions. His mealtimes were turned into challenges. He was compelled to forage for some of his food — mackerel frozen in ice, chicken wrapped in rawhide — to keep his mind and body more active.
His habitat was redesigned. A playroom was added with toys like rubber garbage cans and traffic cones.
In a matter of months, the repetitive swimming began to taper off. It never ceased entirely. “Even at the end it happened sometimes,” Breheny said. “But not to the point where we thought it was a problem.”
Such was his popularity that the zoo estimated that more than 20 million people visited the polar bear during his lifetime.
Polar bears are a protected species. In recent years, those in zoos have brought attention to the threat bears in the wild face from hunters and changes in their environment.
On Wednesday, as waterfalls cascaded into the pool where Gus swam, visitors trooped through the covered observation room.
Eve Parness, who lives in Manhattan, used to visit the polar bear every few weeks with her daughter, who is almost a year old. “She liked looking at a nice white puffy bear,” she said. “He was entertaining to watch swim around.”
August Gresens, 46, was there with his two young children. “We were looking forward to seeing him swimming,” he said. “That was one of the kind of signature experiences here at the zoo, so it’s really sad that he’s not around.”
A necropsy is being conducted on Gus. Then he will be cremated.
The zoo has not decided whether it will try to find a polar bear at another zoo to occupy Gus’ habitat. It might instead select a different species to go there, like a seal.