Friday, April 27, 2018

A final farewell to Inuka, the ‘Singa-polar bear’

By Toh Ee Ming

26 April, 2018

SINGAPORE — Stopping the waterfall in its enclosure was one of Inuka’s favourite tricks, more than 400 staff of Singapore Zoo, well-wishers and fans heard on Thursday (April 26).

At a private memorial service for the Republic’s last polar bear, deputy head keeper Mohan Ponichamy delivered an eulogy for the Singapore Zoo’s beloved bear, which was not revived from anesthesia on Wednesday on “humane grounds”.

Paying tribute to Inuka’s inquisitive personality, Mr Mohan recounted some of the polar bear’s mischievous antics to the crowd who gathered at 11am at the Frozen Tundra exhibit’s amphitheatre on Thursday.

It was really smart, Mr Mohan said, and knew the waterfall was powered by a water inlet within the pool. Initially, it used its paw to block the inlet, but it was unable to stop the water flow completely. So, it used its toy – a large and flat red disc – instead.

Inuka knew exactly what it was doing, because it would watch the waterfall as it performed its trick. “He knew how it worked … he would spend the entire day trying to stop it,” said Mr Mohan, before thanking the water treatment engineers who put up with Inuka’s antics.

Subsequently, the keepers drilled holes into the disc to prevent it from bringing the flow of water to a complete halt, but they never stopped Inuka from playing that prank as “he loved it”.

The playful bear – whom Mr Mohan described as being as “practical” as the regular Singaporean – preferred playing with bins and traffic cones, instead of the imported enrichment toys the Zoo got for it.

Calling it a “a tropical bear, a 'Singa-polar' bear”, Mr Mohan said Inuka had brought a lot of joy to the staff, and generations of Singaporeans who watched the first polar bear born in the tropics grow up.

As a tribute to Inuka’s love for water, some the guests turned up for the ceremony dressed in blue and white. And a box of light blue ribbons – left by an anonymous member of public – was passed around the teary-eyed crowd, who pinned it on their clothes.

In the empty enclosure, a single wreath of orchids stood atop the “ice block” where Inuka used to bask in the sun.


As Inuka’s hind legs grew weaker in its later years, its ability to stand on land was compromised. But it continued do so in the three metre-deep pool, and would “tower” above the water”.

Recounting how Inuka would “not feel its pain or its weight in the water”, Mr Mohan recalled fondly how it would play and wrestle with its toys, getting so excited that it would “twist and turn” many times.

But this exertion often proved “too much for its body”, and over the next few days, Inuka would become either unresponsive or did not want to move.

During Inuka’s later years, its team of keepers did not rush it to take its medication or get into the exhibit, as it “was up to him when he wanted to do so”.

Recounting that December 2016 was the first episode that it was became evident to the keepers that the ageing bear had slowed down considerably, Mr Mohan said there was one day when it “slept the whole day” and did not respond till after lunch, when they were trying to coax it to eat, before finally waking up at 6pm.

The keepers were “all worried sick”.

And in its final months, it stopped interacting with its keepers, instead preferring to rest, though it was still alert, Mr Mohan recounted.

While he was saddened to walk through the empty exhibit on Thursday, without seeing a cheery Inuka there to greet him in the morning, Mr Mohan said he had to remain strong for his team and for Inuka, and needed to stand firm on the decision to “let him go, to end his suffering”.

“I loved Inuka, we all loved him. And we want what’s best for him. It’s painful for us … He is in a better place now. But Inuka will always be in our hearts, we will never forget him,” he said.

Group chief executive officer of Mandai Park Holdings Mike Barclay, who also delivered a eulogy, said that Inuka’s intelligent nature and endearing antics made it “ever the darling” for staff, guests and the media.

“He would look at us (while doing his tricks), with a smile on his face ... And it was something delightful to watch,” he recalled.

Calling the team’s move to inform the public of Inuka’s declining health a “tough but courageous decision”, Mr Barclay said they did so as they wanted to be “open and transparent” with everyone.

Acknowledging that some members of the public had “reacted with anger”, while others strongly supported their approach, Mr Barclay said there has been a general outpouring “of love for Inuka” – ranging from handmade get-well cards from children and adults alike, forum letters printed in the papers, and numerous emails and phone calls to suggest how Inuka could get better.

“He will live on in our memories and he will always be in our hearts,” he added.

The hour-long ceremony came to a close with the placing of white roses on portraits of Inuka over the years. And instead of the customary minute of silence, the crowd rose to their feet and broke into rousing applause to honour the bear’s life.


At the amphitheatre, where a memorial wall was put up for members of the public to pen their well wishes, the mood was heavy as some visitors gazed forlornly at the now empty enclosure.

Within half an hour, more than 70 paw-shaped notes had been pinned on the board. Some visitors hoped that Inuka was happy in its “Polar Bear heaven”, while others thanked it for bringing smiles to their faces.

A frequent visitor to the zoo, homemaker Choo Xiao Wei, 42, had specially brought her two children, aged six and four, to say a final goodbye.

Fighting back tears, Mrs Choo said, “(I tell the kids that) death is part of life … and we say our last goodbyes … before they go”.

Pilot Jason Loh, 31, who was there with his three-year-old son, said: “How often do we get to see a real-life polar bear in the tropics? It’s just sad this will be the last polar bear I will ever see, unless I travel up north.”

Visitors like Shanghainese Zhang Lan Lan, 36, whose four-year-old daughter loves polar bears and the snow, said they were deeply saddened by the news and hoped the bear would “rest in peace”.

But “kids being kids”, police officer Saiful Bahri, 37, would still have to answer to his six- and four-year-old sons asking him if Inuka had died “because it bathed in cold water everyday”.

“I have to tell them that Inuka used to be very active … but over the years, it has become old and sick,” he said.

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