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Wang, Africa's last polar bear, heartbroken over death of companion

By Faith Karimi, CNN
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1007 GMT (1807 HKT)
For Valentine's Day, zookeepers brought Wang a box filled with goodies and decorated with,
For Valentine's Day, zookeepers brought Wang a box filled with goodies and decorated with, "We Love You Wang!"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wang has been alone since his polar bear partner of nearly three decades died in January
  • He refuses to swim, which is his favorite pastime
  • "He generally looked very unhappy," zoo official says
  • Johannesburg zookeepers have come up with creative ways to cheer up the polar bear

(CNN) -- Africa's last polar bear spends his days grieving his longtime companion at a zoo in Johannesburg, a far cry from his Arctic habitat.

Wang has been alone since GeeBee, his polar bear partner of nearly three decades, died suddenly this year.

The South African zoo he calls home is on a mission to cheer up the listless animal and distract him from his heartbreak.

GeeBee and Wang had spent their days together since they were cubs. It was a notable friendship -- polar bears tend to be solitary animals.

In January, GeeBee succumbed to a heart attack.

"On the day she died, Wang was doing unusual things," said Agnes Maluleke, the carnivore curator for the Johannesburg Zoo.

Wang (left) and GeeBee had spent their days together since they were cubs. GeeBee died of a heart attack.
Wang (left) and GeeBee had spent their days together since they were cubs. GeeBee died of a heart attack.

Instead of gobbling up food used to lure him into his night room, Wang walked around his companion's body, stared and kept watch the whole night, according to Maluleke.

After his companion\'s death, Wang lost interest in food and shunned swimming, his favorite pastime.
After his companion's death, Wang lost interest in food and shunned swimming, his favorite pastime.

"He had to be immobilized to retrieve GeeBee's body," she said.

 GeeBee, who died suddenly in January, lived at the Johannesburg Zoo for 28 years.
GeeBee, who died suddenly in January, lived at the Johannesburg Zoo for 28 years.

Shortly after, Wang lost interest in food and shunned swimming, his favorite pastime with GeeBee.

"He generally looked very unhappy. He was avoiding swimming, which is what he likes to do when it's hot," she said. "He hasn't got over the water issues; we've hardly seen him swim lately."

Zoo officials stepped in to lift his spirits.

For Valentine's Day, they brought him a box filled with fruit and meat, and decorated it with love hearts and a note that said, "We Love You Wang!"

"As the partner's not here, we thought let us organize something special for him to show that we still care and love him," Maluleke said.

It appeared to get the cuddly giant excited.

Ecstatic crowds watched him gingerly open the gift in his enclosure and feast on the goodies.

Companies also showered him with toys, including a ball filled with treats that he pored through for hours. One even offered a snow machine in the hopes that it might excite the animal long associated with subzero temperatures.

But Wang suffers from liver disease and has lived his entire life in a warm climate. A sudden change in environment would be fatal for his advanced age, Maluleke said.

Wang was born at a Japanese zoo, and GeeBee came from Canada after both were swapped for lions. The two met at the Johannesburg Zoo when they were 6 months old and lived there for 28 years. They did not breed because polar bears' reproduction is stimulated by cold weather.

Wang is not the only fragile polar bear rescued by humans.

Knut captured hearts worldwide when he was abandoned by his mother at Zoo Berlin in 2007. A zookeeper took care of the cub until he was old enough to fend for himself. Although animal rights groups denounced it as unnatural, the cub and his caretaker, who slept next to his crate, became instant celebrities.

Knut died three years ago at age 4.

But the elderly Wang is thriving amid all the extra care, zoo officials said. He's showing more interest in food and his surroundings, and is more alert by the day.

Zookeepers don't know how much longer Wang has to live. In the wild, polar bears barely make it past 20 years, Maluleke said.

But for now, his human friends continue to find ways to stimulate and console him.

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