ASHEBORO, NC - One of the North Carolina Zoo's most popular animals will be going on sabbatical later this month.

"Wilhelm" the polar bear will be moving to the Milwaukee Zoo for about two years while the zoo's Polar Bear exhibit undergoes a $7.8 million renovation and expansion. He is slated to be placed aboard a commercial cargo plane in Greensboro on September 21 for the flight to Milwaukee.

Polar bears have always been a favorite with zoo visitors, but habitat loss and other environmental changes have placed wild polar bears on the endangered list. The N.C. Zoo is looking at the future of the entire species as the exhibit expansion will enable the park to add additional animals and help educate visitors about the polar bears' plight in the wild.

Aquila, one of the zoo's two male polar bears, was moved to the Detroit Zoo in May. Now Wilhelm will be packing his bags for an extended stay in Milwaukee.

The renovations may also enable the zoo to create a breeding group of polar bears. Construction is expected to start this fall and requires that the bears be relocated. According to Jeff Owen, animal management supervisor in charge of the Rocky Coast complex where the polar bears are exhibited, the expansion project will triple the space available for bears and could accommodate up to six animals when completed.

The project will also provide additional viewing opportunities for visitors. A new exhibit area that simulates an alpine meadow stream will be added to the existing 10-foot-deep pool and rocky landscape. A maternity den is also included in the renovations.
"We hope in years down the line we will have baby polar bears," Owen said. "So we're setting up our new facilities and holding areas for that."

The exhibit renovations are expected to be complete in late 2013 and will provide the N.C. Zoo with some of the best polar bear facilities in American zoos. Meanwhile, the public is encouraged to visit the zoo and see Wilhelm before he catches that late September flight to Milwaukee.

The N.C. Zoological Society, the zoo's non-profit support organization, is also planning an official "Good-Bye Party" for Wilhelm at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, September 17. Tickets for the event are $35 and only 75 guests will be able to attend. For information call the Society offices at 336-879-7250 or contact Dr. Jayne Owen-Parker at

The zoo is located on Zoo Parkway (N.C. 159) six miles southeast of Asheboro of U.S. 64 and U.S. 220. Operating hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The park is open year round. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for children 2-12 and $10 for seniors 62-plus.

The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dee A. Freeman, Secretary; Beverly E. Perdue, Governor.