There Will Never
Be Another Gus
Depressed. Neurotic. Terminally bored. Obsessive, self-absorbed and inscrutable. Yes, any of these would be a good description for a New Yorker; many did fall for the cliche of the ‘cooler than thou celebrity.’ Gus, the polar bear who died last month, was all of that and more.
In his eventful 27 years, he pretty much ran the gamut that most residents of the city have tracked on their way to legend in their own mind: he got here eager to inhabit the imagination of eight million-plus people. But in the process, he may have lost his er, bearings.
Since 1988, Gus had ruled Manhattan’s only zoo, in New York’s Central Park, as its most distinguished and most eccentric resident. Kids loved all 700 pounds of him, but somehow, somewhere along the way, something clicked inside him.
There was a time he was just a tender teddy from Toledo, Ohio. But once in New York, he sported an almost autistic trait: swimming laps for hours on end, as if he’d found a straight connection to his inner Olympic god. It was his moment of Zen, repeated over and over, day after day. Mesmerized, visitors couldn’t get enough of his thunderous and yet graceful back and forth routine.
He presided for a quarter of a century over a way too small tank, cherished by his two female companions, Ida and Lily, who both died before him. He leaves no offspring. Which is a pity, because he was, after all, the only bear worth knowing in the Big Apple, as 22-year old Tundra, who lives in the Bronx Zoo, was never a match to his notoriety.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other bear in the world whose behavior entailed a budget for therapists and wild life specialists, working around the clock to understand him. Or whose puzzling personality inspired news around the world, books, a Wikipedia page, and even a play. Of course, no one was about to settle for the obvious: the big guy didn’t like captivity.
But he never lived in the wild either. So a whole therapy was envisioned to treat him. At one point, special toys were thrown in the pool and animal behaviorists were even hired to play with him. It seemed to have worked: he stopped swimming with abandon or at least for too long, and his mood improved, according to his handlers.
Oh, yes, someone so special did have handlers. We’re talking about 20 million visitors here, the estimated number of those who listed a peek at his tank as one of the reasons to come to New York. In some ways, he did live a gilded life, away from the natural dangers that usually limit the average age of polar bears to 20 years.
He certainly never had to hunt for his own salmon. In the wild, he could have met a fate similar to a relative of his (call him cousin Barry?), who was found starved to death last July, on the Arctic island of Svalbard, Norway, skin and bone all that was left of the magnificent creature. Unwittingly, he may have became a poster animal for climate change.
Back home things were not looking up lately for Gus either. He was no longer eating properly and no more of that water ballet he seemed so consumed at performing. What experts thought was just a toothache turned out to be an inoperable tumor in his thyroid. He was euthanized in New York and has been eulogized all around the world.
It’d be shallow to call him the bipolar polar bear, the spoiled beast, or the very reason that some believe that untamed animals belong in the wild, not in a cage or a cement pond. It’d be flippant because, as we said, children loved him. And with his zaniness, he carved a place among the idiosyncratic bunch decrying his passing as another way this town is losing its edge.
To paraphrase the classic that two other New Yorkers, Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, penned over 70 years ago, there will be many other stories like this, and we’ll be standing here with someone new. There will be other songs to sing, another fall, another spring, but, Gus, there will never be another you.