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Polar Passage to mimic wild

Zoo's latest effort focuses on new habitat for bears.

COURTESY: MICHAEL DURHAM/OREGON ZOO - Nora takes a dive into the pool.It may be a shoulder season for visitors to the Oregon Zoo, but the place is hopping year-round with conservation projects, construction efforts and other improvements.

One, in particular, will tug at visitors' heartstrings: Polar bears.

Zoo officials are seeking the public's input in designing a new Polar Passage, which will soon house Nora, the young polar bear who arrived at the zoo from her former home in Ohio.

The new exhibit will be a major reboot of the existing habitat, which is mostly concrete, built before zoos began taking on more conservation-minded approaches.

Nora met her roommate, Tasul, late last month. Tasul, who'll turn 32 on Dec. 1, is considered elderly, since the median life expectancy for female polar bears is 24 years. Conrad, another polar bear at the zoo, died in July at age 31.

In the meantime, the zoo is asking the public's help in selecting features for the new habitat so that it can be educational as well as entertaining.

COURTESY: MICHAEL DURHAM/OREGON ZOO - The cuteness factor is ramped up when new polar bear Nora takes to the pool to play at Oregon Zoo. Zoo officials are planning the polar bears' new home, Polar Passage.The zoo is working with Polar Bears International, the U.S Geological Survey and other partners on research projects in search of potential solutions for the effects of climate change on polar bears in the wild.

Tasul has been wearing a high-tech collar to help researchers track her movements and investigate her response to climate change.

The new habitat will provide visitors a window into these research activities so they can learn about the plight of the animals and their dwindling habitat in the arctic as the polar ice caps melt.

"This is a great time for our community to tell us what’s important to them,” says Heidi Rahn, director of the 2008 zoo bond program that's funding the Polar Passage. COURTESY: MICHAEL DURHAM/OREGON ZOO - Nora plays in the water.

"In addition to providing the best possible habitat for the bears," she adds, "we want this space to reflect the desires of the community that will be visiting it.”

The new exhibit is slated to break ground next fall and open in 2019 with more open terrain so the bears can walk like they do in the wild. It also will include natural ground materials, tundra plants, elevated areas for long views, shallow and deep pools and viewing opportunities.

The project is the sixth of eight completed by the bond measure. The others include a veterinary medical center, an improved water system for Humboldt penguins, the Condors of the Columbia exhibit and the Elephant Lands habitat.

Construction is now underway on a new conservation education center to house zoo camps and other speakers and events, due to open next year.

To take the Polar Passage survey, visit: www.bit.ly/PolarPassageSurvey.

To see a video of Nora exploring her new home, visit YouTube.