SINGAPORE - Singapore's last polar bear Inuka was put down on Wednesday morning (April 25) after a health check-up showed that the 27-year-old animal's ailing health had not improved significantly.
The Singapore Zoo said it made the decision on humane and welfare grounds.
The zoo will put up a tribute wall at Inuka's enclosure from Thursday for visitors to pen their tributes to the bear, who is the first polar bear born in the tropics and one of the top attractions at the zoo. It will hold a private memorial service for Inuka on Thursday.
Inuka will not be buried. The zoo will perform a full autopsy on the polar bear and might preserve parts of it for educational purposes. Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which runs the zoo, did not elaborate when asked at a media briefing which parts of Inuka would be preserved.
Inuka's enclosure will be refurbished and might be turned into a sea lion exhibit.
Inuka, who would have been well into his 70s in human years, had been suffering from age-related ailments such as arthritis, dental issues and occasional ear infections for the past five years. A medical examination on April 3 had revealed a significant decline in his health.
His weakening limbs could not support his 500+kg weight and led to him dragging his feet. This had caused ulcerations on his pads that led to deeper infection between his toes. He also had a wound on his lower abdomen, likely caused by urine-burns from incontinence and recurring urinary tract infections.
The zoo said a medical examination on Wednesday showed that the open wounds on the paws and abdomen had not significantly improved despite additional treatment over the last three weeks. These wounds, which were quite deep, would have caused pain and discomfort to Inuka, and would only be aggravated as his arthritis worsened.
At 27, Inuka had surpassed the average life expectancy of polar bears, which typically live 15 to 18 years in the wild and 25 years under human care.
Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, WRS' deputy chief executive officer and chief life sciences officer, said: "Our decision to let Inuka go was made with the knowledge that his health issues have seriously impacted his welfare."
"As much as we would like to keep Inuka with us for as long as possible, our ultimate responsibility is his welfare," Dr Cheng added.
Mr Mohan Ponichamy, deputy head keeper at the Singapore Zoo, said: "It has been a privilege and honour being his caregiver. But, difficult as it may be, it would not have been fair to prolong his suffering."
Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has supported Inuka since his birth. SPH Foundation, the charity arm of SPH, took over the adoption of the bear from 2007.
Said Dr Lee Boon Yang, chairman of SPH Foundation: "Over the years, he has brought so much joy to many, and we now share everyone's sorrow over his passing.
"We believe that WRS' decision to let him go is in his best interest, and would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the Singapore Zoo for taking good care of him all these years," he added.
Inuka was born on Dec 26, 1990 to much fanfare after his parents - Nanook and Sheba - were brought to Singapore in 1978. A third bear, Anana, joined Inuka's parents at the Singapore Zoo soon after.
Over the years, Singaporeans have watched Inuka grow up and grown fond of the bear. When news of his declining health broke, many people turned up at the zoo to leave cards and letters at his enclosure.
The name was chosen in a nationwide naming contest, which received more than 10,000 entries.
Inuka's father, Nanook, died in 1995 at the age of 18, while his mother, Sheba, died in 2012 at the age of 35, the second-oldest polar bear in the world then. Anana, a female polar bear, died in 1999.
WRS on Wednesday reiterated that Inuka will be Singapore's last polar bear. The zoo had said in 2006 that it would not bring any more polar bears to Singapore, following discussions with its Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee.
Zoo visitors were downbeat when they learnt that Inuka had been put down.
Housewife Pamela Lee, 41, took her four-year-old daughter, Bliss, to the zoo specially to catch the bear on Wednesday.
They have been visiting the zoo regularly for two years, usually on weekends, but decided to make an exception on Wednesday, in hopes of seeing Inuka.
Ms Lee said that while Bliss was disappointed she was not able to see Inuka in his enclosure, she understood that he was sick and had to go.
"He was a signature animal in the zoo that was with us for many years, and we actually came today to see him," Ms Lee said.
"Now that he's gone, I'm sure everybody will be very sad, because we've known him since young. But I think it's about time too - it's part of life and he has to go at some point in time."
Said another visitor, personal assistant Eleanor Schoellner, 23: "It's sad... I'm sorry for his death, but if he was old... it was probably better to let him go."
Mr Chris Hang, a 40-year-old public servant from Australia who was visiting the zoo with his family, was also disappointed they could not see Inuka.
"We're sorry to hear the polar bear passed away... But I understand that to be a polar bear living in Singapore is hard as well," he said.
In a Facebook post published on Wednesday, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam expressed his sadness over Inuka's death.
"So many memories down the years, such a favourite. He was well cared for and received lots of love. Will be missed," he said.