From the death of beloved Knut in 2011, to the “World’s Saddest Polar Bear” in Argentina, and the passing of cub Fritz in Germany last month — not to mention the “depressed polar bear trapped in a mall in China” — polar bears, it seems, are no strangers to heartbreak.
According to NBC News San Diego, a 21-year-old polar bear named Szenja, who was born in captivity at Germany’s Wuppertal Zoo and lived at SeaWorld San Diego’s Wild Arctic exhibit since the 1990s, died at the marine park on Tuesday. While the official cause of death is still pending necropsy, some believe her separation from another polar bear, 20-year companion Snowflake, may have caused Szenja’s downward trajectory.
“Szenja died of a broken heart, PETA believes. After losing her companion of 20 years when SeaWorld shipped Snowflake to the Pittsburgh Zoo in order to breed more miserable polar bears, Szenja did what anyone would do when they lose all hope, she gave up,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) vice president Tracy Remain in a statement.
The bears previously made the news last month when thousands of animal lovers signed an online petition in the hopes of swaying SeaWorld from its decision to send Szenja’s “best friend” to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for breeding purposes. NBC San Diego reports that caregivers and veterinary staff noticed a drop in energy and loss of appetite in Szenja in the wake of Snowflake’s departure, but her death was an unexpected shock. (See the two bears, in happier times, below.)
“Szenja was a beloved member of our animal family, so this is a very difficult day for all of us,” Al Garver, SeaWorld San Diego’s vice president of zoological operations, said in a statement. “Szenja not only touched the hearts of those who have cared for her over the last two decades, but also the millions of guests who had the chance to see her in person. We’re proud to have been a part of her life and to know that she inspired people from around the world to want to protect polar bears in the wild.”
PETA has a different take on the bear’s untimely death.
“After 20 years in captivity with nothing but each others’ company to keep them going, Szenja and Snowflake were bonded, and breaking that vital bond appears to be what killed Szenja,” Reiman told PEOPLE in an email. “Polar bears are naturally solitary in the wild, but there is nothing natural about life at SeaWorld — or at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where SeaWorld is trying to breed more polar bears for sideshow attractions in which they’re confined to one-millionth of their minimum home range in nature.”
According to Polar Bears International, the polar bear species has a life expectancy of 15 to 18 years in the wild. Some live 20 to 30 years, but only a small percentage live past the 15 to 18 range. (The oldest captive polar bear died at 41.) In the wild, these bears are threatened by climate change, a rapid loss of sea ice, poaching and pollution.
In response to PETA’s assertions, SeaWorld remains steadfast. “We and other accredited and world-class zoological facilities remain focused on our important mission of animal conservation and public education and inspiration,” the company said to PEOPLE in an email. “We will not be distracted by organizations with a clear anti-zoo agenda creating false narratives not grounded in any scientific fact. It is well documented that adult polar bears are typically solitary animals, and Szenja was continually cared for and enriched by her dedicated and passionate animal care team. She did not demonstrate any adverse behavioral changes following Snowflake’s transport to the Pittsburgh Zoo in February as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding visit …. Unlike wild polar bears facing habitat loss, human encroachment and limited food sources, Szenja lived a long and enriching life at SeaWorld, with the passionate and uncompromising care provided to her by her loving trainers, and made a positive impact on tens of millions of park guests that had the chance to see her over the past 20 years.”
PEOPLE has reached out to the Pittsburgh Zoo for an update on Snowflake’s condition.