ASHEBORO-Aquila, one of the three original residents of the North Carolina Zoo's polar bear exhibit, returned to Asheboro Wednesday and may be on exhibit as early as this weekend.

The 16-year-old male bear arrived via truck Wednesday afternoon from the Cleveland Zoo accompanied by a N.C. Zoo keeper and veterinarian. After passing a post-transfer physical exam, Aquila may be placed on exhibit in the next few days if he adapts to his new/old surroundings as expected.

Wilhelm, the zoo's lone polar bear for the past two years, was taken off exhibit in February while undergoing treatments for several medical problems. With Wilhelm, age 24, now in an off-exhibit holding facility, Aquila becomes the lone resident of the polar bear exhibit and the normal 30-day quarantine period for all new zoo animals is being waived.

Aquila first arrived at the N.C. Zoo with brother Arcturus and sister Aurora in June 1994. Born at the Louisville (KY) Zoo in 1992, the sibling polar bears were named for stars in the Northern Hemisphere. And they quickly became the stars of the newly opened North American region when their exhibit in the R.J.R Nabisco Rocky Coast habitat was unveiled in August 1994.

The popularity of the three bears never waned over the ensuing years, although two of the siblings were eventually lost to unrelated medical problems-Aurora in February 1999 and Arcturus in October 2002. Aquila remained at the N.C. Zoo until November 2002 when Wilhelm and another male bear, Masha, came to Asheboro.

Wilhelm and Masha were among six polar bears confiscated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) from a circus traveling in Puerto Rico. A USFWS investigation had uncovered alleged violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which resulted in the bears' confiscation. To make room for the two confiscated bears at the N.C. Zoo, Aquila was transferred first to the Louisville Zoo and later to Cleveland. Masha died in June 2007 from a combination of internal problems related to the inadequate care provided during his years in the circus. No timetable for Wilhelm's return has been set while he remains under constant care by keepers and veterinarians.

But with Aquila back in Asheboro, everything old is new again and visitors can once again enjoy one of the N.C. Zoo's most popular exhibits.

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