Hundreds stood in a half circle Friday at the Buffalo Zoo, waiting for Luna, the polar bear cub, to make her first public appearance.
Suddenly, the fluffy little bear bounded onto the grass, and the crowd – in some cases packed four and five deep around the enclosure’s perimeter, including children home for spring break – cheered, clicked photos and broke into broad smiles.
The frolicking 4-month-old cub – one of only three born in U.S. zoos in 2012 – quickly became acclimated to her new surroundings – including toys and a plastic barrel – sometimes playfully biting Alice Rohauer, the veterinary technician who has served as the cub’s surrogate mother.
After a half-hour, she clumsily climbed into a plastic wading pool to take a dip, drawing a small round of applause.
“We’re just so excited to have the polar bear here. We’ve been following her on Facebook,” said Angela Snyder of the City of Tonawanda, who was with her children, Katie, 13, and Derek, 4.
“She’s even cuter than I thought she would be. And what a personality on her already.”
“We came out special to see Luna. She is adorable, and you just want to tickle her tummy when she falls over,” said Jennifer Brady of Orchard Park, who was with her three children and three of their friends.
Marissa Smithler drove two hours from Auburn to see the little bear, who was publicly introduced March 1 and has drawn national and international attention.
“It was totally worth coming,” said Smithler, as she aimed her large camera lens at the bear. The amateur photographer said she “absolutely” planned to return to see Luna again and looked forward to visiting the zoo, which has a greater variety of animals than cities closer to home.
Sharon Riznik, of Orchard Park, also snapped away.
“I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot to see a little baby polar bear, live and in concert. She’s adorable.”
Luna’s first public romp began limited daily viewing hours for one hour at 11:30 a.m., although visitors are advised to call the zoo at 837-3900 to confirm the cub will be on exhibit. She is also featured daily on closed-circuit television located in the M&T Bank Rainforest Falls exhibit from 1 to 3 p.m.
The cub has quickly become a marketing powerhouse, helping to raise funds for the 1.5-acre, $14 million Arctic Edge exhibit that will eventually be home to her and other wildlife, including Arctic wolves, bald eagles and Canadian lynx. Zoo spokeswoman Rachel Gottlieb said public contributions have surpassed $130,000 of the more than $550,000 raised over the past month. The zoo needs to raise about $4 million to pay for and then begin work on the exhibit, expected to open in 2015.
“People have been asking us when she was going to be out on exhibit for public display, but I don’t think anyone was expecting a crowd quite this size,” Gottlieb said.
As Luna scampered about, Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s director, walked through the crowd happy to see the large turnout.
“The fact she is just the darling of the community is really gratifying,” she said.
Fernandes said she hoped the public support would encourage local governments to dig deeper for financial support.
“I hope when they see how important this cub is to the community, they will make every effort to help us fund the exhibit,” she said.
Fernandes laughed as the bear flopped around in the water.
“She’s having a lot of fun, and I don’t want to pull her out of here,” she said. “We just wanted to make sure that if she was stressed out, we wouldn’t stress her too long. But she seems to be doing quite fine.”