The holes in the bucket’s lid tantalize Gus; the green apple and fish are just out of reach. He’s bashed the bucket, throttled it, even sat on it, but all the clawing fury of his 700-pound body hasn’t popped the lid. He floats in his blue pool at the Central Park Zoo, brooding into his silky paws. Tries to coax the lid with his triton-shaped snout. Tucks the bucket to his ribs like a football and plunges to the bottom of the pool. At an underwater viewing portal, a small boy announces, “Polar bear! Garbage can!” Now he, too, is hooked.
Looking on from above like proud parents at the third-grade pageant are zoo director Dan Wharton, public-affairs manager Alison Power, and animal supervisor Tony Brownie. This is the most scrutinized animal in America; beauticians, auctioneers, long-haul truckers who’ve stopped for a doughnut all call the zoo to ask, “How’s your bear?”
Gus claimed our attention with his backstroke. Last June, the tabloids suddenly noticed that he was swimming all day long, as glazed as an accountant doing laps at the Y. Better still, the zoo had hired a $50-an-hour animal shrink to help Gus appreciate his urban surroundings. (In the wild, polar bears roam up to 30,000 square meters; in Central Park, America’s first zoo and its second-smallest, Gus and his denmates Ida and Lily share 5,000 square feet.) “It really was a New York story,” Alison Power says. “Its like Woody Allen always being in therapy—the idea that all New Yorkers are neurotic.” Gus was the mod...