If you're looking for a cool job, you can do a lot worse than working with polar bears. Emily Schultz is team leader at Northwest Passage, the latest natural exhibit to open at the Memphis Zoo. Home to sea lions, bald eagles, and the city's finest totem pole collection, Northwest Passage's feature attractions are its polar bears. And their best friend is Emily Schultz.
First of all, let's introduce everyone to the polar bears.
Our male polar bear is Payton. He's 2 years old, was born in Chicago, and was named after [football Hall of Famer] Walter Payton. Our females are Haley, 3 years old, and Cranbeary. Cranbeary is 4 and was born on Thanksgiving.
Q: How long do polar bears live?
A: In the wild, about 20 years. Females typically live a little longer.
Q: Any hopes for these polar bears to become parents?
A: Yeah, I think we're going to do that. Typically, males will mature around 7 to 8 years old. You know, in the wild, it's the biggest bear that gets to mate. Payton's the only male here, so he doesn't have any competition and may be ready in a couple of years.
Q: How much does a polar bear weigh?
A: The females are pretty much done growing, and they weigh about 600 pounds. Males can get up to 1,200 pounds.
Q: They aren't exactly cuddly, are they?
A: No, they're not. The three bears we have are pretty laid back. They're used to people, and the routine. But polar bears are generally very curious . . . and they're not afraid of anything. You have to be careful when you work around them.
Q: What do you do to make sure the polar bears know you're friendly, and not supper?
A: The biggest rule is to never be in with the polar bears. We make sure all the locks are locked and the doors are closed. We're never in direct space. Also, they just have to get to know us. It took a couple of weeks before they would allow us to hand-feed them.
Q: What do they get to eat?
A: Meat, 20 pounds for the three to share; fish, 15 pounds; and what we call polar-bear chow, 12 pounds, kind of like dry dog food, with bigger pieces.
Q: Would a polar bear eat an ice-cream cone?
A: I'm sure they would! We try to keep them on a diet, but they like ice treats. We give them frozen fish.
Q: The big question: How the heck do you keep a polar bear cool in a Memphis summer?
A: The pool, for one, is huge: 130,000 gallons. And we keep the water at 65 degrees. There's a giant shade structure that looks like a rock built into the exhibit. And underneath the shade structure is what we call a "comfort rock." It's an area that's chilled by water running directly beneath the concrete.
Q: What's the biggest difference between a polar bear and a grizzly -- the bear, I mean -- and which is more fierce?
A: The grizzly bear head has a different shape, and they have a hump near their shoulder blades. I've never worked with grizzly bears, but they both have reputations [for being fierce].
Q: What's your favorite part of working with the polar bears?
A: They're just so impressive, and really intelligent. I enjoy finding ways to keep them entertained, different toys to keep them occupied. Polar bears figure out things really fast. We've started teaching them different behaviors, like presenting their paws or opening their mouths . . . so we can take care of them.