SALT LAKE CITY -- My, what big paws you have, Rizzo.
What big claws those are, too, and take a look at those gi-NOR-mous teeth.
Yes, she's a fearsome predator -- this star of the new Rocky Shores exhibit at Hogle Zoo -- but Rizzo also has her fluffy and playful side, too.
Just get a load of the 600-pound polar bear's antics as she splashes, dives and blows bubbles out of her nose in her deluxe swimming pool in Emigration Canyon. Or the way she carries her toys around the spacious exhibit, or digs in the dirt with her partially webbed toes.
"The other day, she was covered in dirt -- we were like, 'Is this a polar bear or a brown bear?' " says Elaine Nolan, a keeper at the Salt Lake City zoo where Rocky Shores opens its doors to visitors today, June 1.
Rizzo has been a much-anticipated addition to Hogle Zoo, which hasn't had polar bears since 2003, says zoo community relations coordinator Erica Hansen.
But the 14-year-old bear isn't the only new kid on the block at Rocky Shores. Three grizzly bear cubs, plus seals, sea lions and otters, have all moved into the $18 million exhibit, the largest building project ever undertaken at the zoo. The addition has been under construction since 2010.
Located in the zoo's northwest corner, the habitat sprawls across 3.5 acres and replaces the zoo's smaller and now-demolished bear grottoes. The new dwelling spotlights creatures of America's Northwestern coastline, and sports plenty of floor-to-ceiling windows for visitors to watch the marine mammals swim.
As a state-of-the-art facility, "Rocky Shores kicks things up a notch and gives us the feel of a big city zoo," says Hansen. "We just couldn't be more excited."
Rocky Shores was funded in part through the $33 million "Renew the Zoo" voter bond passed by Salt Lake County residents in 2008. The bond will also finance construction of the African Savanna exhibit with lions and giraffes, which is set to break ground this fall.
Before arriving at Hogle Zoo, Rizzo lived at the Cincinnati Zoo, where a former keeper described her in a recent press release as "the cutest and most playful" of a trio of polar bears.
Polar bears for zoos are hard to come by, Hansen says: "There was a time that we were concerned we would cut the ribbon (at Rocky Shores) and not have a polar bear."
Then word came that the Cincinnati Zoo wanted to relocate Rizzo. "We were so elated to have her," Hansen says, "and quite fortunate that it worked out the way it did."
Rizzo -- her name may be "Grease!" inspired, Nolan suspects -- had been placed in Cincinnati for breeding, but Hansen says there were no "sparks" between her and the Ohio zoo's male bear. However, keepers in Cincinnati did report some mating going on between the two before Rizzo left, Nolan adds, so perhaps there might be a baby polar bear in Rocky Shores' future.
"There is a possibility, but nothing is confirmed," Nolan says, explaining Rizzo's hormone levels are being tested to determine if she might be pregnant. If it turns out she is, Nolan says, "Oh my gosh, we'd be thrilled."
However, Rocky Shores is designed to be a long-term conservation and breeding facility, Hansen says, so future plans do call for one day breeding Rizzo.
For now, visitors shouldn't worry that Rizzo is lonely as the zoo's sole Ursus maritimus or "sea bear."
Polar bears are by nature solitary animals, Nolan says, so unless they are mothers caring for cubs, "They're on their own."
Speaking of cubs, grizzly yearlings Koda, Lou Lou and Dolly may well be the spotlight-stealers of the new exhibit, Hansen says.
The 3-year-olds are akin to human teenagers in age and are full of energy, she says: "They like to wrestle and there's some sibling rivalry."
And, Hansen says, zookeepers will be continually tossing new grass seed over the lawn in the cubs' Bear Meadow exhibit because, "We're expecting them to just sort of tear it up."
Although Nolan says she hasn't heard the polar bear make any noises at all yet, "The grizzlies are just so loud -- they sound like dinosaurs. It makes your hair stand up on your arms ... "
Connected to both bear exhibits is a den or public viewing area where visitors can watch keepers conduct routine health exams on the animals. The bears will learn to present their paws, so keepers can check their paw pads, or stand on their hind legs, so keepers can look at their bellies.
Rizzo is so eager and cooperative about learning these behaviors that Nolan says, "This bear is blowing my mind."
The polar bear's reward comes in the form of all sorts of edible goodies, her keeper says, including fish, meat, biscuits, produce and even occasional sweets.
To the rescue
The grizzly cubs are rescued animals, which is also the case with several other creatures transplanted to Rocky Shores.
Born near Yellowstone National Park, the cubs were left homeless three years ago when their mother had to be euthanized after killing a camper and injuring two humans as she protected her babies. The little grizzlies were taken in by the Buffalo Zoo in New York until they could move into the Utah zoo's new exhibit, Hansen says.
"They really do serve as great ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild," she says.
Then there's Big Guy, the zoo's 850-pound sea lion. He comes from a California marine mammal center that cared for him after he was found washed up on a beach with cuts to his face.
Big Guy is blind, which prevented him from being released back into the wild, Hansen says.
Yet: "To watch him (swim), I've never seen him bump into anything -- he's very graceful," the community relations coordinator says.
The other two sea lions are also rescues: Maverik is blind in one eye, and Rocky suffers from slower reflexes due to a head injury. Nick and Nellie -- the energetic river otters -- were formerly owned by a private individual who was no longer able to keep them.
Even Sam and Betsy, bald eagles who have lived at Hogle Zoo for decades and are now part of Rocky Shores, were unable to return to the wild because of injuries that left them unable to fly.
That's "Sam as in Uncle Sam, and Betsy as in Betsy Ross -- very patriotic," Hansen says.
Besides animal comforts, Rocky Shores boasts numerous perks for humans, too. Visitors can pose for photos, sitting on statues of seals and bears, or pick up some polar bear plush at the souvenir stand.
They can also chow down on burgers and Safari Sauce -- the zoo's version of fry sauce -- at the new Shoreline Grill, or dine at the new Beastro restaurant outside the exhibit area, which offers the zoo's first-ever indoor restaurant seating.
Rocky Shores also includes numerous educational displays that help visitors learn more about the animals, which Hansen says is a primary function of a zoo.
"You walk away with a little information nugget you didn't know before," she says.
So, for example: "When you leave Rocky Shores, maybe you'll know the difference between a seal and sea lion."
ROLL CALL AT ROCKY SHORES
• Rizzo — polar bear
Likes to put tires and other toys on her head; adept at picking apart frozen fish treats
• Dolly — grizzly bear
Identifiable by a white “V” marking on her chest
• Lou Lou — grizzly bear
The “troublemaker” of the sibling trio
• Koda — grizzly bear
Shy but smart; the first to figure new things out
• Big Guy — sea lion
Trained to respond to sounds because he is blind
• Maverik — sea lion
Adventurous and curious; blind in one eye
• Rocky — sea lion
Liked to go for daily walks at his previous home in California
• Hudson — harbor seal
Learning to “porpoise,” or jump out of the water like a dolphin
• Mira — harbor seal
Loves the camera; part of an “America’s Next Top Model” shoot
• Nika — harbor seal
Can “dance,” or move her flippers up and down
• Nellie — river otter
Prances when she walks and looks like she’s smiling
• Nick — river otter
Larger than Nellie; has a moustache under his nose
Sources: Erica Hansen and Hogle Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo
Something fishy’s going on at Rocky Shores.
That would be the 18,500 pounds of fish ordered to feed the animals in Hogle Zoo’s newest exhibit — and that’s just enough herring, mackerel, smelt and capelin to last for the first six to eight months.
Other interesting statistics about Rocky Shores:
• Pools: On hot summer days, Rizzo the polar bear’s pool can be cooled to a frosty 52 degrees — just how she likes it. She has 135,000 gallons of salt water to swim around in.
• Water depth: The deepest water is in the pinniped — seal and sea lion — pool, at an average of 13 feet. The shallowest is 5 feet, for the river otters.
• Viewing areas: Huge windows are made of low-iron glass which is clear, not tinted, for a better look at the animals. The windows are constructed of four-ply 3/4-inch panes of glass.
• Underwater window: Rizzo can see the sea lions and seals next door — and they can see her, too — through a window in the exhibits’ common wall. The design is intentional, to provide mental stimulation for the animals.
• Filtration: Miles of pipes handle more than 390,000 gallons of water for all of the exhibit areas. Ninety-five percent of the water is recirculated.
• Plants: Nearly 9,000 perennials and more than 650 trees and shrubs give the exhibit the feel of the Northwestern coastline. Exhibit areas are designed to maximize views of surrounding mountains.
Source: Erica Hansen, Elaine Nolan and Hogle Zoo