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Crowd roars for zoo's new polar bear

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(BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Hudson is the first polar bear to call the  Assiniboine Park Zoo home since Debby died just over four years ago. He was introduced to the public on Thursday.

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Hudson is the first polar bear to call the Assiniboine Park Zoo home since Debby died just over four years ago. He was introduced to the public on Thursday. ( BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS )

It was fitting that the newest star of the Assiniboine Park Zoo was unveiled on Valentine's Day -- there was a whole lot of polar bear love in the air on Thursday.

When Hudson, the 16-month-old polar bear who recently arrived from the Toronto Zoo, poked his nose out into his new home Thursday morning, a roar went up from the crowd.

"Hip, hip, hooray," yelled one man above the din.

It seems the first polar bear at the zoo since beloved Debby died in 2008 was feeling the love, too, as he wasted no time in getting up close and (almost) personal with about 100 of his new fans.

Hudson playfully ran back and forth along the inner fence separating him from the crowd, occasionally batting around a plastic orange ball, and even standing up on his hind legs with his front paws on the fence.

Sara Miles was there for Hudson's first moment in the Winnipeg sun, along with her five-year-old daughter Zoe. They're regulars at the zoo in the summer, but this was their first time visiting in the winter.

"He's fun," said Zoe, who thought it would be nice if the zoo would find Hudson another bear with which to play.

"We've really been looking forward to Hudson, because when Zoe was pretty little, we bought a video called Growing Up Arctic, which is about a bear named Inukshuk who lives at the Toronto Zoo, and he happens to be Hudson's dad. We know all about his dad from the video," Miles said.

Hudson will be housed at the zoo's International Polar Bear Conservation Centre until its four-hectare Journey to Churchill exhibit opens next year.

Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, was presented with a Winnipeg Jets jersey (Hudson and No. 1 on the back) from Premier Greg Selinger and Mayor Sam Katz during Thursday's unveiling ceremony. Redmond said Hudson has made a quick transition to his new home.

"He seems to love the snow and colder temperature that we have to offer here," she said, adding she hopes other polar bears will join Hudson in the years to come.

Redmond said the Journey to Churchill, through interactive displays and audio-visual components, will be "an educational classroom like no other" for learning about the impact of climate change and the importance of biodiversity, as well as conservation and research on species of the North.

Zoo officials made a point of paying tribute to Debby during Thursday's ceremony. Prior to her death at 42, she was not only the oldest polar bear in the world at the time but also one of the three oldest bears ever recorded. Debby had been visited by more than 15 million people during her four decades at the zoo.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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