Beloved Oregon Zoo animal moving to Utah next month as polar enclosure gets a remodel

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Nora made a close up appearance for zoo patrons on a recent sunny weekday morning. On a recent warm, sunny morning, visitors excitedly bustled though the Oregon Zoo, despite it being a workday.

And many were beelining to the Pacific Shores section — not far from the main entrance — into a gray man-made cave area constructed to emulate the Arctic.

Residing there for not much longer, through Sept. 10, is the beloved polar bear called Nora, who at that particular time was playfully wandering between pool and land.

While adults snapped photos on their smartphones to document the experience for Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, children pressed their faces and hands to the clear barrier separating them from the wild animal.

At first, Nora seemed indifferent to the audience, simply wandering about her living quarters, but as more glued their noses to the glass, it was almost as if she knew she should impress them. COURTESY PHOTO: MICHAEL DURHAM/OREGON ZOO - Nora the polar bear is leaving the Oregon Zoo by Sept. 10, heading to Utah where she will have a playmate named Hope.

She jumped back into the water, taking small dives, fur feathering under the water. Then, coming up as close as she possibly could to the glass, the arctic beast — who at the time appeared more like a cuddly pet — gave the children something they could take home with them: a true close-up memory.

Just her head above water, Nora pawed at the glass, white fur glistening in the sun, as if to say hello, her nose only inches from the children's. It's hard to know what a wild animal is thinking or feeling, but one could swear she was smiling, with seemingly real warmth in her eyes. But that apparent warmth didn't fool Ava, 5, visiting with her sister and mother. Would she pet the nearly 2-year-old Nora if she could?

Ava shook her head fervently; of course not. "She would probably bite me!"

Her sister Taylinn, 10, thoughtful for a moment, explained that Nora's cuteness would be a barrier to any hard feelings that might arise from an actual bite.

"She looks cute. If she wanted to do something bad, I couldn't do anything to her," she said.

Would Nora bite? Having been born in the Columbus Zoo in 2015 and abandoned by her mother, the young cub was raised by humans, and so some real bear traits have gone unlearned. Maybe she'd be gentler than a true polar bear of the wild, but certainly people don't take the chance. No one ventures into her habitat.

"We have to come in as best as we can to try to teach her, which we're not very good at because we're humans," explained zoo keeper Amy Hash. She said Nora was known before for throwing tantrums, but improved over time.

Nora wasn't in tantrum mode on that particular day. She acted more like an enlarged house cat — although one that, miraculously, wasn't opposed to jumping into a body of water.

One thing that makes Nora the polar bear special is her observable curiosity. She has a sparkle in her dark bear eyes, one of deep inquisitiveness that can be lost as creatures, including sometimes us humans, age.

"It seems like everything is new to her. Everything you give her, she just explores and engages with," Hash said.

That personality, coupled with captures of playful moments posted to social media by zoo staff, have curated a following for Nora.

"I think people have fallen in love with her. It's hard not to," Hash said.

But Nora is off to Utah's Hogle Zoo in September, where she may learn some needed bear mannerisms, as well as just have a friend — another polar bear called Hope.

"I love her," visitor Carolyn Wheatley, from Portland, said with real sincerity. She was visiting with her significant other. The two longtime zoo members had missed Nora the evening before, and so they ventured back to the exhibit to get a glimpse.

"But I'm happy she'll have a playmate. I hope they come back," Wheatley said.

Zoo officials don't know if Nora will return to Portland. Nora came along shortly after the euthanization of another polar bear, Conrad, and then Conrad's twin, Tasul, died soon after Nora's arrival.

The Oregon Zoo polar bear display is getting an overhaul, transforming into a more improved exhibit called Polar Passage.

Nora's habitat there now is mainly gray concrete and rock; the new area will evolve into a larger habitat more reflective of the real thing, with tundra plants, deep pools and other natural elements. It's expected by 2020.

Nora didn't seem concerned about all that on that afternoon, though.

There might be a move ahead of her, and a new polar bear friend to engage with in the near future, but she was ready for a snack — some greens strewn in a corner — and then naturally, like humans need after a swim and a snack, a good snooze.

Unconcerned about the visitors on the other side of the glass, the bear called Nora was done entertaining at that moment.

She sprawled out on a rock, which was presumably warm from the sunshine, and closed her eyes, maybe dreaming of a real Arctic tundra.

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