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Debby polarbear Winnipeg Canada

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©  EXIF
(Photo: CBC)

She came to Canada as a Russian orphan in the midst of the Cold War and quickly became a beloved icon for generations of Manitobans.

After earning worldwide recognition as the oldest of her kind, Debby the polar bear died peacefully on Monday at the ripe old age of 42.

Her keepers and admirers laid flowers by her empty enclosure at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo Tuesday as they tearfully remembered the majestic, gentle bear.

"Debby was a great bear," said Jos Gatien, the zoo's senior bear keeper who worked with Debby for 13 years. "She acted like a grumpy old bear a lot of times. It was great. She had a lot of life in her, a lot of feistiness."

Debby was born in the Arctic islands of Russia and came to Winnipeg in 1967.

She became a fixture at the zoo, outliving her mate Skipper and giving birth to six cubs.

This year she was recognized as the oldest living polar bear by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Most polar bears only live into their 30s in captivity and Debby was just one month shy of celebrating her 42nd birthday.

But Debby's longevity took its toll. She suffered a series of strokes which left her disoriented and with some facial paralysis.

Gordon Glover, the zoo's co-ordinator, said her keepers were able to control the strokes with medication for the last two years but Debby started to deteriorate this summer. She stopped eating her normal diet of salty, savoury food, preferring sweets and Popsicles.

Debby lost her appetite completely over the weekend and had difficulty getting up Monday morning, Glover said. After running a number of tests, zoo officials decided to put her down. She died surrounded by her keepers and friends.

"Pretty much all the zoo-keeping staff was there," Glover said, choking back tears.

"It was very difficult. Debby has been a long-time member here at the zoo. She's been here longer than any of the employees. Everybody that works here has got to know her very well."

Keeper Bob Sydor, who worked with Debby for the past five years, said she was playful right until the end.

When he fed her Popsicles recently, the 200-kilogram bear started a gentle tug-of-war through the bars even though she had the strength to be much more forceful, Sydor said.

In the end, he said her death was peaceful.

"It was a beautiful moment," Sydor said.

"The bear keepers got to go into her cage with her when she was asleep and just before she was put down. So we got to scratch her head and rub her ears - stuff that we couldn't do before. It was very poignant. Now, she's gone and so we go on."

The zoo is planning a memorial for Debby on Saturday. After that, her guardians will decide what to do with her remains.

Skipper, Debby's mate of 32 years, had his ashes scattered near Churchill, Man., on Hudson Bay when he died in 1999.

"That wouldn't be a bad option," Glover said.

"She did come from Russia so there is an option of sending her back to Russia and having her scattered there too."

Tributes to Debby poured in from around the world as news of her death spread. A Winnipeg online chat site posted fond memories of the zoo's matriarch, calling her death "a great loss to the city."

"I've visited the zoo quite a number of times over the years," remembered one blogger.

"Always got a big kick out of the bears, most especially Debby and her various offspring. Long life for a bear, and the 'humane' thing was done, by ending any suffering that she might have gone through."

"Sleep well, Debby, you've earned your rest."

Robert Buchanan, president of Polar Bears International, said Debby's long life was a testament to the passion and care of her keepers.

"She was not only part of the Assiniboine Park but an Arctic ambassador of polar bears to the world," he said in a statement. "We'll miss her."

The City of Winnipeg will celebrate Debby's life at a ceremony on Saturday, November 22. It is expected that large numbers of Winnipeggers, who grew up with Debby, will attend the event.
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Comments on this photo:

Nov 19 2008 04:14 GMT Londi PRO
Such a profound loss. The fact that they could scratch her ears at the last-what an experience! May she rest in peace in bear heaven. How wonderful for you to write this and post jomoud.
Nov 19 2008 04:20 GMT hans55 PRO
a good tribute John ... there must be a bearheaven too !!
Nov 19 2008 18:35 GMT Lensvision
A sad day.
Nov 19 2008 21:00 GMT lynnj04
Lovely tribute to a great bear :-))
Nov 20 2008 05:53 GMT crazy8s
Such a moving story of Debbie. She touched so many people in her life. That's an accomplishment many people could hope for. Thank you for sharing this tribute with us.
Nov 26 2008 22:13 GMT gwen83
Aaahhh:-)))

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