POWELL, Ohio (WCMH) — Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is welcoming back a much-loved polar bear, Lee.

The 23-year-old male arrived from the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, accompanied by a team of animal care staff, veterinarian, and facilities staff members to ensure his safe arrival, according to a release from the zoo. Since his arrival, Lee has settled in well and the animal care team has observed him closely.

Lee previously called the Columbus Zoo home from November 2018 to August 2020, where he sired his first cub, Kulu, with mother Aurora. To ensure there was proper space for Kulu, Aurora and her twin sister, Anana, Lee was relocated to Louisville. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan recommended that Lee be paired with 16-year-old Aurora again to produce more cubs.

Polar bears are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, noted the zoo. Their populations are declining due to the disappearance of sea ice, which they rely on for hunting seals. The Columbus Zoo has been successful in its polar bear breeding program with a total of five surviving cubs born since the 2010 opening of the Polar Frontier region. The zoo added that it is dedicated to conserving polar bear populations and has contributed more than $300,000 to Arctic projects that benefit polar bears since 1998.

In March 2022, Columbus Zoo’s animal care and animal health teams collaborated with a team from the Cincinnati Zoo to perform artificial insemination on Aurora and Anana with shipped semen from Lee. Although none of the attempts were successful, the zoo determined that valuable data was gained with each try and the zoo continues to work with other scientists to find ways to protect the species.

Unfortunately, Anana was humanely euthanized in October 2022 due to complications from an autoimmune disease. However, Lee’s return to the Columbus Zoo is an essential step in helping to protect this at-risk species.

Nikki Smith, curator of the Columbus Zoo’s North America and Polar Frontier regions, said, “We are proud to be a part of collaborative efforts working to help polar bears, and we’re particularly excited to welcome Lee back to the Columbus Zoo.” She added that Lee is sure to raise public awareness and inspire people to learn more about actions they can take to make a positive difference for polar bears and other species.

With fewer than 60 polar bears in North American zoos and the species facing increasing threats in their native range, the reintroduction of Lee to Aurora, according to the zoo, is an important step in protecting the future of this magnificent animal.