Kali, the Polar Bear at the Saint Louis Zoo

The bitter cold temperatures felt here earlier this month had at least one winter-loving creature feeling right at home — Kali (pronounced Cully), the Saint Louis Zoo’s resident polar bear. 

“Polar bears are well adapted for arctic temperatures, so the negative wind chills we’ve been experiencing in St. Louis are no problem for Kali!” said Carolyn Mueller, one of the Zoo’s eight full-time carnivore keepers who care for Kali and author of a new eight-chapter serial story on Kali that begins in The Missourian today.

“He spends most of his day playing outside and even continues to swim in his saltwater pools. It’s a lot of fun to care for an animal who thrives under these conditions!”

Kali has been a beloved addition to the Saint Louis Zoo since he arrived in 2015. It had been around six years at that point since St. Louis had a polar bear, Mueller noted.  

The Saint Louis Zoo, which in the 1920s had built some of the nation’s first naturalistic bear habitats by creating rocky grottos from molds of nearby Missouri bluffs and inspired other zoos to follow its example, had just completed a $16 million renovation and upgrade of its polar bear habitat, complete with two freshwater pools, two filled with saltwater, a coast-like terrain, a sandy beach and an area of grass. 

All it needed was a polar bear, said Mueller. And Kali needed a new home. 

Orphaned as a cub in March 2013 near Point Lay, Alaska, Kali had been raised in zoos and cared for by zookeepers, first in Alaska, then Buffalo, N.Y., and finally in St. Louis. 

Mueller shares the story of that journey in the 2018 Reading Across Missouri story, “Kali: A Polar Bear’s Tale,” produced by the Missouri Press Foundation.

In the story, Mueller explains the extremely special care that was needed to care for Kali, who was 4 months old and just 18 pounds (the size of some puppies) when he was flown to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage and how a veterinarian worked to feed the young cub after he turned away the first offering.  

She describes what life is like on the northwest coast of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle — for the small population of native Alaskans who live there and for polar bear cubs like Kali — and tells how the bear got his name.  

Writing from her heart as someone who knows and cares for Kali, both literally and figuratively, Mueller explains how zookeepers in each location helped the orphaned cub learn about what it means to be a polar bear. That included introducing him to a fellow polar bear cub, Luna, at the Buffalo zoo. 

“It’s a pretty interesting tale, especially because here in St. Louis and I’m sure in Washington, Mo., too, kids come to the Saint Louis Zoo, and they know Kali. They like visiting him a lot, so to learn about where he actually came from is pretty fascinating,” said Mueller. 

Dawn Kitchell, The Missourian’s educational services director, agrees. 

“We knew this story would have a special appeal to readers in our community who visit the zoo and are familiar with Kali.”

Kitchell said this is the 14th year The Missourian has published a serial story in January to encourage children to start a new year with reading as a top priority.

Missourian readers will know Mueller from the many past serial stories she has written — including “Jim, the Wonder Dog,” “Night at the Capitol,” “The Gashouse Gang,” and “Lily’s Story,” about the rescue dog who helped in the aftermath of the 2011 F-5 Joplin tornado.

Beyond the Serial Story

The Reading Across Missouri story features eight chapters about Kali, each appearing in an issue of the Weekend Missourian from the Jan. 20-21 issue through March 10-11.  

Most chapters include a newspaper activity and a companion teacher guide is available for download from the Missourian In Education page at emissourian.com.

Missourian readers will have an additional opportunity to learn about Kali from the author — and zookeeper herself! Just as the story gets underway in the newspaper, Mueller will visit Neighborhood Reads bookstore on Thursday, Feb. 1, to share pictures and other information she’s learned about the polar bear as one of his caregivers.

The presentation, open to all ages, will begin at 6:30 at Neighborhood Reads, located at 401 Lafayette St., in Washington.

Meet Kali at the Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo is open seven days a week, with hours through spring from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on major holidays and special event days. 

McDonnell Polar Bear Point includes sea, coastline and land areas. 

“The ‘sea’ area features an arctic cave room with an expansive glass viewing wall where visitors can peer deeply into the 50,000-gallon Polar Dive Pool. This large glass panel also offers a split view into and across the pool and on to Bear Beach, created with sand, pebbles and rock formations,” the website reads. 

“The moraine or ‘coastline’ offers a scenic view that includes carved rock made to look as if it were formed by glaciers. It also features a large panoramic view with nine curved, faceted glass panels spanning 55 feet and offering a view of Bear Beach.”

The grassy “tundra” area is where visitors can observe Kali up close as keepers offer enrichment or go through training exercises. 

Kali does have access to his building 23 hours a day, and he does sometimes go in, but this time of  year the polar bear is almost always out, said Mueller.  So if you come to visit and don’t see him, just wait a few minutes, and he will probably walk back out. 

McDonnell Polar Bear Point also includes interpretive materials that provide information about the plight of the polar bear and the role they play in the lives of the native Alaskan people. 

“Visitors can see objects that would be present in traditional Alaskan villages —from boats to snowmobiles,” the Zoo’s website notes. “In video interviews, which will play on monitors along an interactive wall, Alaska Natives will share information about their relationship with nature — particularly with polar bears — and how their lives are changing as ice continues to decrease in quantity and quality due to climate change.”

To learn more about Kali and the McDonnell Polar Bear Point where he lives, go to www.stlzoo.org and under the Visit tab select Things to See and Do and then click on The Wild icon, where you can select Polar Bear Point.