Making Life Bearable

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

STRETCHED OUT ON A ROCK IN New York City's Central Park zoo, Gus the polar bear is the very picture of ursine peace. It is not fresh fish that makes him so, nor even fine fall weather. It's analysis that has saved his soul—or, at least, provided him with the bear essentials. Yes, after $25,000 worth of therapy over 16 months, Manhattan's second most famous analysand—after Woody Allen—has stopped acting out and is embracing his inner cub.

Of course change requires the desire to change—and Gus's keepers at the zoo really wanted him to change. They became concerned in late 1993 because Gus, 9, was spending his days obsessively swimming laps in his 90,000-gallon pool. While the swimming was great for his pecs and delts, it made some people wonder if Gus might be a few herring shy of a barrel.

So in March 1994 the zoo brought in Tim Desmond, 46, a California-based animal behaviorist, who diagnosed Gus's problem as—no, not bipolar disorder—simple boredom. Like many in the postindustrial West, Gus had been ruined by the easy life. "He didn't have enough to do," says Desmond, who trained Keiko the whale for Free Willy. "The swimming was a replacement for the behavioral and sensory activities that he didn't have."

"These guys are on top of the food chain," says Bruce Foster, the zoo's head keeper, about polar bears. "They're the smartest carnivores in the world." And a smart carnivore quickly gets bored when dinner—Zoo-Preem Omnivore Chow, chicken parts and frozen mackerel and herring—arrives hand-delivered regular as clockwork. Under Desmond's direction, keepers have turned feeding time into a game for Gus and his female companions Ida, 9, and Lily, 8. Food is hidden. Peanut butter is smeared on tree trunks and rocks. Fish are frozen inside 25-pound blocks of ice that the bears have to break through. Gus, forced to used his wits again, began to bloom.

Now he cavorts among the rocks, fishes for trout in the moat around his enclosure and flirts with Ida and Lily. Gus, in short, is happy. Ida and Lily are happy. So are Tim Desmond and Bruce Foster. In fact the only Gloomy Guses in this story are some of the zoo's visitors—who have been complaining that Gus doesn't swim as much as he used to.

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