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Photo: NC Zoo keepers sending birthday package to polar bear

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(Photo courtesy, N.C. Zoo)

(Photo courtesy, N.C. Zoo)

(Photo courtesy, N.C. Zoo)

ASHEBORO, N.C. — Keepers at the North Carolina Zoo are sending one of their favorite animals a birthday package while he’s on sabbatical at another zoo. 

Wilhelm the polar bear was transferred to the Milwaukee Zoo in September 2011 so the N.C. Zoo’s polar bear exhibit can undergo $8.5 million in renovations and expansion.

Also known by his keepers as “Willie,” Wilhelm is turning 28 years old on Friday.  Zoo officials say he will be “near the top of the expected lifespan for polar bears in captivity.” 

Zookeeper Jessica Cranfill says the polar bear staff has created a large cardboard birthday card that will be packaged with two of Willie’s favorite items — a jar of peanut butter and a large plastic “boomer ball.”

“Willie has been one of the visitors’ favorite animals for nearly a decade,” Cranfill said. “We just want him to know how much he’s missed back at home.” 

The package leaves for Milwaukee on Monday.

Aquila, the zoo’s other male polar bear, was also moved for the renovations in May 2011.  He is currently at the Detroit Zoo.

The N.C. Zoo is looking at the future of the polar bear 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.

The expansion project — scheduled to be completed in late 2014 — will triple the space available for polar bears and could accommodate up to six animals when completed.