To be honest, I don’t really remember why Tim and I decided to start going to the zoo more regularly. Neither of us had been there in years, but within a couple of visits, we’d decided to get a dual membership and make a regular thing out of it. Our membership began in September 2011 and, unbeknownst to us at the time, an amazing little miracle happened less than a month later – an event which would turn out to affect and change me more than I could have ever predicted at the time. Hudson the polar bear cub was born.
I know, I know – how could something so unrelated to my every day life have such a profound effect on me? I have no idea. But I’m going to do my best to explain it here. Because, you see, I sort of fell in love with this ridiculous, goofy, handsome, wonderful cub…and as of this writing, he will be leaving the Toronto Zoo in a few mere days, and heading off to an incredible new section of the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. I may very well never see him again, and while he has no real idea that I exist, or what his existence means to me, I intend to attempt putting at least some of it into words. For my own sake, if nothing else. So, here we go.
October 11, 2011 – Aurora the polar bear gave birth to 3 wee cubs, fathered by Toronto’s enormous resident male bear, Inukshuk. Aurora had been in a denning situation, and was being watched round the clock by zoo staff as her time drew closer. Unfortunately, Aurora was not ready to be a good mom yet, and rejected her cubs shortly after they were born. Zoo staff quickly intervened, but 2 of the 3 babies perished, and only one wee dude was left clinging to life. Hand-raised by the zoo’s outstanding veterinary staff, the little guy had several close calls in the beginning. It was very touch and go for awhile, as I understand it. But thanks to a healthy appetite and a strong will to live, the cub went from being pink and blind and deaf to having his ears and eyes open up, his nose turn black, and a nice little coat of fur beginning to grow. Eventually, he was a squirmy little nugget, who would soon learn to crawl, and then take his first baby steps around the complex where he was being raised.
I wasn’t paying as close attention to zoo happenings at the time, and in a way, I am kind of glad. Because if I had seen him right at the start, but feared for his survival those first few months, I don’t know how I would have taken it. Maybe it would have made me adore him all the more once he made it past the 100 day mark. But it might have just been more stress than I could take in at the time, on top of everything else that was going on, so it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know of the cub’s existence – nor his troubled start in life – until he was about to go on display at the zoo as the newest addition to the polar bear exhibit.
When the official announcement of the cub’s arrival and survival was made, I was thrilled to learn that the zoo had saved him, and was eager to see him while he was so small. Polar bears are kind of huge and scary – more so to me at the time, actually – but from the pictures I saw in the paper of this cub, I could think of little else that could be cuter than a baby polar bear. I mean, good grief. He’s adorable in every single shot. Though, to be honest, I think it was this one, posted by the zoo, that first snagged my heart:
The cub went on display early in February 2012, so Tim and I made plans to go see him a couple of weeks later. In the meantime, a friend went right before I did, and snapped this pic of the little guy:
I fell in love a little bit more.
When we finally got to the zoo for the first time after the cub was put on display, we encountered a crowd of folks who apparently all had the same plan, and our trek up the path to his gate was a little tough to navigate. So many people wanted to catch a glimpse, and we had to wait our turn, craning our necks from side to side, trying to peer through the crowds and cameras for any quick glimpse of the little guy. Finally, we wound our way up to the front of the group outside his fence, and we slid to one side to stay out of the way of others coming up. That way, we could stay a few minutes without anyone getting mad. We’d waited, and now it was our turn to see him and take pictures.
The wait was worth it. My first pictures of the lad are blurry and crappy because I hadn’t yet figured out how to focus on the bear instead of the fence. But I found myself watching him more with my own eyes, instead of through my camera’s LCD screen, and I couldn’t really take my eyes off of him. The other people around me ceased to exist, and instead I watched this little white furball pad around his enclosure, sometimes looking at us, sometimes shoving a toy around, sometimes just checking everything around him out a little more closely. He was so little, and the urge to scale the fence and go snuggle him was pretty strong, I have to admit. He seemed to be smiling all the time, sniffing the air, and I couldn’t help but smile at the way his feet seemed to curl up at the ends, no matter what he was doing. Walking, stretching, eating, playing. It reminded me of when I say I have “happy fingers” and waggle them in the air as I focus on a particularly delicious meal. I could relate to curly-up feet. And that first day, I bought a stuffed polar bear cub at the Zootique, along with my uber-warm zoo toque.
I’d also…just under a year before he was born, actually…gotten two new kittens. I’d unexpectedly had to put down my beloved Kate, and the empty apartment afterward was too much for me to bear, so I’d adopted two new kittens from Toronto Animal Services in early December 2010. I picked out both girls on the same day (or rather, they picked me), but because Piper hadn’t been spayed yet, I had to leave her there for awhile, and took Flynn home first. Still missing Kate, I couldn’t give Flynnie the kind of love and attention she needed right away, but we grew into it on our own time, and due to complications with Piper, I actually had Flynn at home for a month before her new sister could join us. I watched her play by herself, chasing toys around, or just swatting them a walking over to swat them again. Muttering to herself the whole time, she was so good at entertaining herself – and me – that I hoped she would learn to play with another kitten once Piper could finally come home. She did, but it’s rare now that she plays alone, and part of me misses that side of her. A side I found again while watching this little polar bear cub entertaining himself and his audience all at once.
He started to love being watched by people, and quickly became somewhat of a ham. A grinning, galloping, playful, endearing little ham. When he was young, he’d tire himself out romping around his enclosure, and then we’d be treated to the absolute adorableness of a sleeping polar bear cub. Even then, I couldn’t stop looking at him. Every wiggle of his round butt, every blink of his sleepy, diamond-shaped eyes, every roll in the mud, and really, every breath he took caused this ball of joy to bubble up inside me. He made me giddy from the get-go. I’d start giggling almost immediately, and some days he made me so happy I’d come out of there with tears in my eyes.
The cub needed a name, and the zoo held a contest wherein everyone submitted ideas – both online and at the park – and those thousands got narrowed down to five of the most popular. I actually kind of hated four of them, but one really seemed to suit him, and that’s where my vote went. Happily, the one I voted for also ended up winning, and on March 31st, the announcement was made in the form of a crossword that had to be solved to reveal the cub’s new name: Hudson.
A banner was strung up by his enclosure to let everyone know his name, and I couldn’t wait to see him again, just so I could start using it with him. In fact, I found that it was about that time the little guy had become almost an addiction. I started to miss him if I went more than a couple of weeks without seeing him, I was looking up pictures other people posted online, I read every new piece of information about him that I could find, and I am pretty sure – by that point – that I had more pictures of Hudson saved on my phone than I had of both Flynn and Piper combined.
By the end of April, our zoo routine was firmly established around seeing Hudson. His enclosure was the first place we went in the morning, and after lunch in the Tundra Trek near the end of our day, we’d always go back to see him before leaving. Aside from the months in the summer where we could pet sharks and stingrays at Stingray Bay right before getting on the bus (well, after the requisite loo and Zootique stop on the way to the front gate), Hudson became the first and last part of our zoo day.
The bubble of joy grew even larger once he started playing in his kiddie pool over the summer. Hudson seemed to love being in the water, and he’d put several of his toys in there at once, so he could play with whichever ones he felt like without having to get out first. One time, he kept going underwater and was barely visible for awhile. He seemed to be digging at something or trying to get at something that was down there. Finally, he emerged triumphant with his hard-earned prize: a stick. Again, he reminded me of watching Flynn play. She, too, would work harder to fish a piece of string out from under a door than on chasing any other actual toy I’d bought for her. Getting to see Hudson playing in his pool once again drove me to giggling, happy tears. Somewhere in there, I bought a second stuffed polar bear cub in the Zootique. This one was a bit bigger than the other wee one I’d gotten the day I first met him, so it better matched the handsome young cub he’d grown into, AND it had a tag with his name on it. Perfect. 🙂
Everything Hudson did, every move he made, continued to be adorable and wonderful to watch. It ensconced him ever more firmly in my heart. The way he raises one foot in the air while he eats, how he checks to make sure people are watching when he’s trying to entertain, how he’ll put a paw up on the window as though saying hi to everyone on the other side of the glass. I remember going with our friends, Rick and Nadia, one cool spring day. We saved Hudson for last, and when we got to his enclosure, he was laying down by the fence – on the other side of the hill, out of sight. We waited and waited – forever, it seemed – while I silently willed him to come back where we could see him, and entertained visions of myself scaling the fence outside to go in and get him. Out of nowhere, with almost no warning, he finally bounded up to the top of the hill and stopped, grinning at us as if to say, “Here I am!” I was beside myself with happiness. Not only did our friends get to see him, but there was no way in hell that I was leaving without having seen him that day. Or any day. He’s my bear boy.
Getting to introduce him to my mom was a thrill, too. He was much bigger by then, but still so cute and handsome. I kept wondering if I would still “know” him when he got older, and could no longer be told apart from other polar bears just by virtue of being smaller. It occurred to me that Hudson wouldn’t always get to be at the Toronto Zoo, too. His mom and her twin sister were still there, and his dad – while in Cochrane for now at the Polar Bear Habitat with Hudson’s half-brother, Ganuk – would likely come back sometime so that the breeding program could continue. I’ve learned more about polar bears this past year than I had in the 40 years before Hudson came along, and one thing I know for sure is that they are solitary creatures. Hudson would have to go somewhere else eventually. I just hoped it would be a ways off yet.
I remember one day asking the volunteer in his enclosure if I were to pet Hudson, whether it would feel the same as the section of pelt they have on hand for people to touch. She nodded, and I sank my fingers into the course thick fur, imagining the whole time what it would feel like to have a living, breathing Hudson underneath. I learned that a polar bear’s fur is apparently hollow, too, which is part of what allows them to maneuver through the water so well, and then climb out without weighing an extra ton or two. I’ve been learning a lot about polar bears in general, and it’s all been because I’ve been getting to know just one of them. One with a strong, amazing personality – who also happens to enjoy sharing himself with people even now. He’s going to be an amazing ambassador for Polar Bears International at his new home. But for me, he’s already had a profound, life-altering effect.
See, here’s the thing, too. I was diagnosed with MS in December 2011. For most of that year, I’d been going through the things that would eventually lead to my diagnosis, and I’d done a bunch of research leading up to that moment, just in case it really did arrive. So when my neurologist made the call, I was ready with a plan of action, and started on an injectible medication almost immediately. Once a week, into my thigh muscles, and the side effects are so terrible that I lose a night and most of a day trying to deal with them. Because I was working Saturdays, I would wait to do my shot Saturday nights, and then cope with the suffering through Sundays. There’s no way I could be at work the next day, so the only time I can do it is when I don’t have to do anything the next day if I don’t feel up to it. Usually I can be up and mobile for a few hours at a time, but every week is different, and it seriously affected how often I could go to the zoo, let alone do anything else.
Luckily, Tim is the best zoo-going partner there is (with the likely exception of my Kimie-Lady, of course), and he always let me set the schedule, based on how I was feeling. He even let me text him in the morning with a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on the trip for the day. It’s a longer transit ride for him, but even after I join him on the subway, it’s still another hour to hour and a half to get all the way out there, and then having enough energy to move around much while we are there is sometimes a problem. Yet somehow, for Hudson, I could keep doing it. We went pretty much every two weeks during the summer. Because we have memberships, it’s okay not to see everything every time, and Tim always lets me see Hudson first and last, and when I call time to go, we go. Even if we’ve only been there for three hours, and will have spent an equal amount of time on transit getting there and home again. Yet Hudson has always been worth it. Every time. Even if nothing else goes right, that little guy never fails to make me get out of bed from sheer excitement to see him, and trek all the way out there just so we can spend a few minutes watching him, and smiling. He…rejuvenates me. I could watch him all day. Hudson makes me happy.
The zoo had a high number of births in 2012 – they dubbed it their cutest year ever, and held a “Cute Fight” with rounds of votes for which animal visitors thought was the cutest. Hudson won…quite handily, as I recall. Even over the white lion cubs who are too cute for words all on their own. Fluffy baby penguin chicks, the newborn lemur, Malcolm – all gave way in their own adorableness to see Hudson crowned victor, just by being himself. I think it’s because we know him. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever “met” another animal that I feel like I know. Not one that wasn’t a pet of mine or a friend’s. He doesn’t know I exist, and yet to me, he’s a personality that I understand – one who brings me endless joy and laughter. I’ve been learning from him since I met him. Without knowing, Hudson has been teaching me. Just by letting me watch him. By letting me get to know him.
The day I turned 40, Tim and I made our usual trek out to the zoo, because it was important to me that I spend the day with Hudson, Tim, and other animals that I sort of know. I love watching the lemurs (when not napping in their lemur ball, that is – they’re gonna have to step it up once Hudson is gone!), and otters, and meerkats, and penguins, and white lion cubs. I love watching the gorillas and tree kangaroo and the few times we’ve been lucky enough to listen to the arctic wolves howling has been hauntingly beautiful. The arctic foxes look like cats when they play, the marmosets are stupid cute to watch. And petting stingrays was the cheapest form of therapy ever. But I have to say, all of that pales in comparison to how I feel when Hudson glances at me, or wanders over the window where I’m standing, or pushes a tire around, licks a popsicle in front of me, or wears a bucket on his head. I know him. I know his eyes and the shape of his face. I know how cute his butt looks when he’s been sitting in mud. I know the curl of his feet…the beautiful dark pads of his feet. I know his dozy Mona Lisa smile and his black diamond eyes. I know him, and he makes me happy inside.
I started a Happy Jar on my 40th birthday, and the first piece of paper to go into it to start off my year had his name on it. I would go on to have many Happy Jar-worthy moments after that, but the first one belonged to Hudson.
The first time we got to see him swimming in the big boy pool was ridiculous. Watching him underwater is an amazing and hilarious experience I hope to never forget. He put such effort into diving and staying underwater when he was first learning to combat the natural buoyancy of his back end. He’d push himself down to the windows where we watched, over and over again, making sure we could all see how good he was doing. What a big boy he had become. Again, it was enough to move me to happy tears.
And since spending my 40th birthday with him wasn’t enough, I booked off the date of his first birthday party, and trekked out to the zoo on my own to help him celebrate. Knowing he almost didn’t have a first birthday made the day even sweeter, and while I was only there for a few hours, Hudson was happy to put on a show the whole time. There weren’t many people around at first, so I planned to get a good spot where I could see all the festivities from, but my plan sort of backfired on me a little. Initially, I watched him from up top, because even though he was in the water when I got there, he was sticking close to shore, and not venturing down by the viewing windows much. I saw him run over to one of the side windows of the big enclosure, and when he realized no one was in there watching him, he stood up, slapped his wet front paws against the window, and galloped away to dabble in the pool some more. The message was clear – not only did Hudson want an audience, but there was a whole people-free area on the other side of the pool to watch him from. A woman, her boyfriend, and I all ran over to take up spots by the now-drippy window, and it paid off. Hudson continued to play at the edge of the pool – biting at the jets of water spraying out just below the surface – but eventually, he looked up and saw us there, watching him. Pulling himself out of the shallow water, the bear boy galloped across the rocks and ran right up to us, smiled, bobbed his head in what looked like a polar bear hello, then grinned and ran off to jump in the water some more.
Best. Moment. Ever.
When it came time for cake, I was too far over to one side to be able to see much, and a huge crowd had formed in front of the upper viewing area, so I broke the rules about climbing on the rocks (as did several other people – don’t judge me) and took up a precarious spot as high as I could get, right in front of all the action. A giant ice cake with fruits and veggies inside, and a fruit loop-covered exterior, was placed front and centre, and then Hudson was let back out to enjoy it. The crowd broke into applause and cheers as he made his way across the large enclosure, and then we all sang “happy birthday” to him while he started trying to devour his cake, and a lump of pride and happiness rose in my throat. Within minutes, the cub’s face was covered in pink fruit loop frosting – right up to his ears and all over his front paws – and he was smiling. I stayed as long as the cold day would allow, but for my first alone trip to the zoo, I saw only Hudson. Straight to him, and then back home again about three hours later. Three hours, a cold day, me and the bear.
I was actually pretty upset that I had to work on Boxing Day, and therefore wouldn’t get to see him nor the other animals getting their Christmas treats. I heard there were pretty big crowds, though, so I guess it was just as well. Tim and I decided instead to head out on New Year’s Day, and THAT ended up being a wonderful – if cold – day to spend at the zoo, instead! Very few people around makes me happy, and getting to see that goofball bear cub on a rare day when I am NOT recovering from shot night made it even more special. As per usual, we saw Hudson first thing, then wandered to see other animals before lunch. Tim wanted his burger to be his first meal of 2013, and we had brief heart- attacks when we realized that our beloved Caribou Cafe was closed for the day. We found the spot that WAS open, though, and were still able to get our regular meals, even though we were eating in a different spot from what we’re used to. The bonus, of course, was that they had the baby Hudson videos on a loop inside the restaurant, so it seemed an even more appropriate place to eat that day.
When we went back to see him just before it was time to leave, Hudson was chewing away at something off on the far side of his enclosure, in front of where we had first gone to see him. There is now a big gate there, though, so you can really only watch him through the windows inside. As much as I love watching his butt wiggle when he’s digging at something, though, I really wanted to see his handsome face. So when we went back outside to head home, I paused and went up to the gate to see if I could spot him better by looking through. I pressed my face up to one of the gaps in the wood slats, and he was still there, right in front of me now, licking contentedly at a popsicle.
“Hi Hudson,” I called out. His head came up, his ears perked forward, and he looked right at me. I babbled something incoherent – something about him being a handsome good boy, I think – and he watched me the whole time. He was probably thinking his lunch might come closer if he stayed perfectly still, but to me, he seemed curious – I’d known his name, so maybe I had more treats for him, or something. He didn’t seem afraid, and he didn’t seem like he wanted to eat me – we just looked at each other for a few moments, and then he went back to his popsicle and I turned to head down the hill with Tim.
We stopped at the Zootique, of course, before getting on the bus, and I spotted some mugs with one of Hudson’s baby pictures on them. Tim mentioned that I needed one of those mugs to use on the show, because he’d gotten a sweet Mind Reels mug from his mom for Christmas. As soon as he said that, I picked one up…and couldn’t put it back down. That’s the mug I’ve been using on the show ever since.
Last week I got a media alert that only said “Hudson Update”, and gave no further information. I had the day of the media event off, but had scheduled a long-overdue appointment with my therapist for the same time of day as whatever they were doing with Hudson. The first fingers of fear had already crept into my belly, but I went to my appointment determined to concentrate on the things I needed to talk about. All the same, though, I kept my phone handy for the press release, just in case.
I’d been in my session not ten minutes when the release came through, and my heart broke. Hudson was moving to a facility in Winnipeg at the end of the month. In fact, we were counting inventory at work this past weekend, so the only remaining day I will get to see the bear cub, is his last day on display. I burst into tears, and cried off and on for the next three days. I haven’t been able to talk about him leaving, or think about him leaving, without welling up and being unable to speak past the painful lump in my throat.
I know this move is huge for him, and it’ll be an amazing part of his journey to becoming the big, handsome adult bear I know he’ll be. With luck, he’ll even become a papa bear himself someday. A big, goofy, papa bear who smiles all the time, and who will likely still love wearing the occasional tub on his head. I am excited for Hudson’s future, and have no doubt that it’ll be a bright one. He’s already come so far, and grown so much. And the rest of the world should get to know him. Maybe he can teach others as much as he’s taught me.
But I – I will miss him. More than I know how to express. How do I say goodbye to the little bear who could? How do I bid farewell to one who has taught me so much, and who has brought me such happiness, even when feeling my most miserable and afraid? I mean, I signed his birthday card. When the orca pod was trapped in Hudson’s Bay and I wasn’t sure if they were able to get out, or not, I Googled pics of Hudson the polar bear to cheer myself up. I even named a character in my new novel after him: Lucas Hudson. Luke for short. It hurts to say goodbye.
It hurts less than having to say goodbye to Kate when she needed to be put down. The level of despair is less than when I had to leave Colorado. But it hurts more than saying goodbye when a good friend moves away.
Actually, you know what it’s like? It’s like the end of E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, when first they thought he died, and then had to take him to meet his ship so that he could go home. You know he has to leave, that he can’t stay forever and needs to move on to a safe, happy, and healthy future away from where your’s is. You know he’ll be better off. And you know that you’re better off just for having known him. That nothing can take away the things he’s taught you about the world, and about yourself. You know that you have to say goodbye.
But you also know that he can’t really understand you, and that there is no way you can communicate to him exactly how much he means to you. There are no words, so all you can do is cry, point at your heart, and say, “ouch”, praying that somewhere inside of him, on some deep inner level, he has some understanding of how much you love him.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I’ll be trekking to the zoo on Sunday to see Hudson the polar bear cub one last time before he goes away. One last Hudson-made note for my Happy Jar. One last chance to say goodbye to the bear who changed me just by letting me know him for a while.
There are no words. But to borrow once more from E.T., and alter it just a little bit:
“I’ll believe in you my whole life; every day. Hudson, I love you.”
Two Months: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MBH4ozPXB0
Three Months: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgl6tD-Mh4M