SALt LAKE CITY — One of the main attractions at Utah's Hogle Zoo — a young polar bear named Nora — seems to be settling into a new life with Hope.
"Hope" is actually the name of another polar bear who's helping Nora cope with a tragic early life marred by rejection, disease and death. But there's a happy ending. Her new relationship with Hope is giving Nora a chance at a well-adjusted future.
As zoo animals go, the 2-year-olds are as close as you can get to being celebrities.
"Yes, they are superstars," said Erica Hansen, the zoo's manager of community relations who deals with a steady stream of emails and social media postings. "With the arrival of Nora and Hope, my workload jumped exponentially."
If zoo visitors look closely, they may notice something a bit "off" in the way Nora walks, particularly on her bad days.
"Nora really doesn't have a lot of bad days, thankfully," said Dr. Erika Crook, a veterinarian at Hogle Zoo. "If she does, she's more bowed — like a bulldog — and she can go up on her toes, like walking on her tiptoes." Her elbows are sometimes bent as she walks, oddly for a polar bear, but zoo officials aren't sure if she's in pain.
"Our patients can't tell us if they feel pain," Crook said.
Just to be safe, zoo workers provide her with daily meds — pills mixed in with peanut butter and Cheerios.
"She wakes up a little stiff in the morning," Crook said, "but overall she's doing really well."
It's a big improvement from her early weeks and months of life. As a tiny baby at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, Nora was diagnosed with big health problems. Metabolic bone disease led to at least six bone fractures. Nora also seems to have developed arthritis.
As Crook examined thermal imagery of Nora, she observed hot spots in the bear's shoulder and elbow. "Whether that's inflammation or pain, I'm not certain," Crook said.
The physical challenges are only one aspect of Nora's sad early life. If she were human, her story could almost be an episode of the family TV drama "This Is Us."
"At day six, her mom basically walked away from her," Crook said. "The mom made the decision to not care for Nora anymore."
The Columbus Zoo raised the tiny polar bear by hand, something that zoos around the world have only done six times before. They formulated a special diet to mimic polar bear milk, apparently with mixed success. Although Hogle officials praise the Columbus Zoo for its efforts, they believe it's possible the unusual diet triggered Nora's bone disease.
"She probably wasn't absorbing the right calcium and vitamin D," Crook said. "That's when her bones weren't getting mineralized, at a time when she was growing and she needed all those vitamins and minerals."
To give the motherless cub a foster parent, the Columbus Zoo sent Nora to the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
"She was to be mentored by an old grandma bear named Tasul," Hansen said. "Shortly after Nora arrived, Tasul passed away. So again, Nora was without bear companionship."
Then Hope entered the picture.
Roughly the same age as Nora, Hope was living at the Toledo Zoo. Last year experts decided the best strategy was to bring both bears to Utah to bond with each other. When both young bears arrived in Utah last September, Hope became a role model for Nora.
"The best thing that ever happened to her was meeting Hope," Crook said. "They are forging a really great relationship."
The saga of the unbonded bear and her quiet battle with bone disease made her a celebrity in Portland. That's why Oregonian reporter Kale Williams recently followed Nora to Utah to report on her progress for readers in the Portland area.
"The level of interest in Nora is extremely high," Williams said. "Every story that we do about her gets a ton of traffic. So everywhere she goes, she seems to win the public over pretty easily."
So far the zoo-going public in Utah hasn't really noticed Nora's infirmities, according to her keepers at Hogle Zoo. But there is some concern that — over time — people will begin to notice it on Nora's bad days. And her condition may grow worse.
"We don't know if her bones are going to get more twisted or more shortened and stunted as she grows," Crook said.
No one knows how long Nora will live — potentially it could be 20 to 30 years. But with Hope, Nora seems to have a brighter future.Comment on this story
"It was a really good time and a good age for these two bears to be brought together," Hansen said. "It's just gone better than we could have hoped."
Nora is considerably smaller than Hope — 373 pounds versus 520 in a recent weigh-in. But experts aren't worried about that.
"She's still within the normal range," said Joanne Randinitis, the zoo's primary bear keeper. "She's just on the smaller side; a little bit petite."
"She also really enjoys the public," Crook said as she settled on a single word to describe Nora's emotional side:
"I think she is, uh, happy."