Sometime this January or February will be moving day for the bears at Brookfield Zoo. After 75 years in the same well-known habitat, the brown bears and polar bears will take up new residence on the former site of Ibex Island, just across from the Regenstein Wolf Woods.
The bears will have new neighbors, too. Bison, bald eagles and ravens will live in separate areas right next door. The birds will have their own private mesh aviary, here in the new $27.3 million Great Bear Wilderness, which will open to the public on May 8, 2010.
The new bears’ yards are about three times as big as the old “grottoes” they’ve called home since the zoo’s opening day in 1934.
But why is this centered around the bears, in particular? According to Stuart Strahl, CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, “The number one group of animals that people come to see here at the zoo are the bears.

“There’s a reason for that. In cultures around the world, there are bears, who have some similar habits to humans,” said Strahl at a special sneak peek of the new exhibit for members of the press on Dec. 8. “These charismatic ‘megafauna’ are awe-inspiring, but also connected with all our cultures, going back thousands of years.”
The Great Bear Wilderness’ bear section comprises 5.4 acres, and the three bear yards have different topography. The polar bear section will have rock formations similar to what existed at the old polar bear grotto. There will even be the usual water pools, and zoo guests can see the bears swimming at an underwater viewing area, much the same as at the porpoise exhibit at the other end of the zoo.
The brown bears will live in a forested habitat, which will also have water pools fed by a 15-foot-high waterfall.
The new, larger space will allow the zoo to expand its polar bear breeding program. There’s even been a special maternity den constructed for this purpose.
All three bear yards have new bushes and trees, but they are not expected to look the same once the bears move in. Mike Brown, in charge of the bears, did not hold out much hope for the survival of the landscaping.

“They’ll be ripping out the yard,” he laughed.
There are some slender-looking trees growing here, ones that looked like they’d soon be instant wood chips, but Brown explained that the thin wires extending out from the trunk, at various levels, were going to be electrified, and this would give the bears incentive to leave the trees alone.
Also members of the “wilderness,” the bison, in their own area, will have a 1.5-acre roaming yard, with two “sand wallows,” all in a prairie setting. Zoo guests will be able to watch the bison through two open viewing spaces into the roaming yard. If you’ve ever wondered what a bison stampede sounds like, you’ll be able to hear it in the 60-foot-long interpretative tunnel.
Bald eagles and ravens are perching birds, so a 24-foot-high perching tree has been constructed for them. The tree is not of natural wood, but made of structural tube steel, covered with sprayed concrete. If the birds feel like nesting, there’s been a platform made where they can do that, too.
Months before the opening day in May, the Great Bear Wilderness will be completed. The bears, at their old home, will be anesthetized and put into several large shipping crates. The bears, one of which weighs 880 pounds, and another, at 720 pounds, will be escorted by 20 burly keepers and trucked over to their new home.
Keepers will then be able to judge how well the bears are acclimatizing themselves. And in the zoo, guests will be able to roam the safer parts of this “wilderness,” experiencing more than they ever have before, in a greatly expanded setting, just as the zoo has planned all along.

“What we’re finding in urbanized America,” said Strahl, “is that very few people understand their relationship with nature. Our goal here, since our charter year in 1921, has always been to make that connection between people and wildlife.

“These bears, these ‘ambassador animals,’ are the ones who will drive home that point. That this is what a zoo should be, as a conservation center.

“But what we still are is this place for people to come and see the animals.”