Asheboro, NC —The Milwaukee County Zoo announced today that 28-year-old polar bear Wilhelm, formerly at the North Carolina Zoo, was euthanized due to ill health.

“Over the past couple of days, “Willie” (as he was known to keepers) was not eating and could not stand,” said Milwaukee Zoo Curator of Large Mammals, Tim Wild. “Our veterinary staff did an exam on Willie and  found fluid in his abdomen.”

A complete necropsy (animal autopsy) will be performed to determine the exact cause of death. Willie was transferred to Milwaukee in September  2011 to enable the N.C. Zoo to launch an $8.5-million expansion of its polar bear exhibit. He was slated to remain in Milwaukee until the renovations were complete, now anticipated in fall 2014.

Willie was among eight polar bears seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002 due to inadequate care from a traveling circus in Puerto Rico. Subsequently all the bears were placed in U.S. zoos, including two that were sent to Asheboro. During his years at the North Carolina Zoo, Willie became a visitor favorite – even attracting a regular crowd of Asheboro High School “Zoo School” students who visited him daily.

Willie was as famous in England as in North Carolina. Thanks to the efforts of N.C. Zoo volunteer photographer Valerie Abbott, photos of Willie playing with toys and splashing in his pool appeared numerous times in British newspapers.  

According to Milwaukee County Zoo officials, Willie had also become a favorite attraction for their visitors.  He could often be seen swimming in his exhibit pool, and playing with a variety of enrichment items.  The Zoo’s female polar bear, Snow Lilly, remains at the Milwaukee Zoo on public exhibit.

Willie’s loss comes just seven weeks after the N.C. Zoo’s other polar bear, Aquila, died unexpectedly in his overnight holding quarters. Aquila had returned to Asheboro from the Detroit Zoo in April after renovations to the older part of his exhibit were completed.

“We were very happy to help in Willie’s rescue and to give him a much better life for some many years,” said N.C. Zoo Director Dr. David Jones. “He lived to a ripe old age for a polar bear.”

The N.C. Zoo is now working with the Polar Bear Species Survival Program of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to find animals for the expanded exhibit.  

Due to climate changes, including habitat loss, wild polar bears have been placed on the endangered list.  While at the North Carolina Zoo, Willie became an animal ambassador for many of the programs set forth by Polar Bears International (PBI), an organization helping to conserve polar bears in the wild.

The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John E. Skvarla, III, Secretary; Pat McCrory, Governor.