Binky had a taste for zoo-goers’ flesh. But with each tourist he attacked, Alaskans loved him even more.
By ELIZABETH HAMES
The polar bear cage at the Alaska Zoo is a fortress. Eighteen feet of sheer concrete surround the man-eaters on all sides; the windows are of shatter-proof glass. When it’s feeding time, says zoo director Patrick Lampi, “keepers have to unlock three doors to enter.” Two are commercial steel fire doors; the third is a bar-grate door with a master lock.
But it hasn’t always looked like a maximum-security prison. The zoo’s first polar bear exhibit, which housed its most prestigious pet, Binky, was more like a playground: Only eight feet of drill pipe and two waist-high gates stood between the half-tonne bruin and his admirers. Twice during the summer of 1994, people trespassed in Binky’s enclosure. Both times, he taught them a terrible lesson. The ferocious attacks shocked headline-readers around the world – but Alaskans refused to demonize the bear. Instead, in their irreverent Northern way, they crowned him their hero.
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Trauma tainted Binky’s early days. Like many bears before him, poachers had slaughtered his mother when she left her den on Alaska’s North Slope to search for food. Whether Binky witnessed this event is uncertain, but he would be nearly crippled by its effects. At three months old, Binky had just found his feet, so hunting the Arctic’s buffet of wary seals and quick birds was unthinkable. It wouldn’t take long for him to succumb to starvation. So when wildlife officials spotted him toddling helplessly to- ward the sea ice in January 1975, they had no choice but to scoop him up and surrender him to the Anchorage zoo.
He was an instant hit. Visitors clambered to get a glimpse of the jovial cub, and Binky, it seemed, reveled in their attention. “[He] plays to the crowds, tossing side-long glances to make sure someone is watching,” reported the Anchorage Daily News in May 1976. “And when the zoo closes at 5 p.m., he cries because he’ll receive no more applause and laughs for the day.”
But growing up under the gaze of tourists did nothing to dispel Binky’s instinctive appetite for human flesh. He was merely a wild animal with a landscaped den – and it showed. In a 1984 letter to the editor, nine- year-old Della May Higgs told the Anchorage Daily News that Binky had tried to “tear me, my mom and my sister to pieces.” As they ogled the brown bears in the neighbouring enclosure, Binky thrashed at the bars of his cage. “Binky was turning the bar from side to side, we were terrified,” she wrote. A quick-thinking zookeeper tossed Binky some meat to quell his anger. Meanwhile, the terrified tourists backed away, keeping their gaze on his cage.
Higgs and her family weren’t the only ones to catch a glimpse of Binky’s mean streak. Lampi, who was a zookeeper at the time, says the bear behaved unusually violently toward zoo staff and visitors alike.
“I do not see that same aggression in the bears we have today,” he says. But not everyone saw Binky for the fierce predator he was. In July 1994, an Australian woman, Kathryn Warburton, wandered from the zoo’s main path in hopes of snapping a close-up of the bear, which she thought was dozing. She scaled the set of four-foot fences separating tourists from his cage, apparently oblivious to the danger.
It wouldn’t be long before she changed her mind. With her camera covering her face, Warburton didn’t see Binky sneak up to the fence and slowly slip his arm through the 14-inch gap between the bars. Wrapping his giant paw around her calf, he pulled the woman flush to the fence and thrust his canines into her blue trouser shorts. Then, attempting to drag her into his cage, he yanked on her calf, snapping her femur. With the crack of her bone, Warburton released a cry that resonated throughout the 25-acre park. “Stop! Stop!” she screamed.
Two nearby groundskeepers perked up when they heard her cries. Throwing down their trowels, they ran toward the bear enclosure. In seconds they were yanking at Warburton’s right arm while Binky pulled back on her left thigh. It was a deadly tug of war, and Warburton was the prize.
The commotion drew gawkers from all corners of the zoo. “Can someone call someone?” a spectator asked. “Use a gun – a tranquilizer gun!” yelled another. While most visitors looked on in shock, a few threw their manpower into the battle, while others smacked the bear with scavenged branches. But next to the slavering beast, their sticks were downright flimsy. Then, in a flash, Binky loosened his jaws and the groundskeepers stumbled backward with Warburton in their arms. In one last show of power, Binky snatched her red and white tennis shoe as it brushed past his mouth. He wouldn’t put it down for three days.
While Warburton whimpered in the arms of paramedics, Lampi was relaxing on one of Alaska’s idyllic fishing piers. He wouldn’t hear about the incident until later that evening, when he dropped off his wife in time for her shift at the hospital lab. But before he could give her a kiss goodbye, he was swarmed by a gaggle of frantic lab technicians. “Oh my God. It’s crazy!” Lampi recalls them saying. Binky had attacked a woman, they said, and the victim was recovering in a room upstairs. As he ran down the hospital halls to her bedside, he scrolled through the possible scenarios. At best, she would sue, at worst she would demand death for the bear. He never could have anticipated her response: “Please don’t let them do anything to Binky,” she cried, when he introduced himself. “I am so sorry, it’s all my fault.”
Alaskans agreed. Many had moved to the state to be closer to nature, and tourists were known for behaving ignorantly in the wilderness – even for taunting the North’s wild critters. Antics such as Warburton’s were the ultimate show of disrespect.
Alaskans quickly adopted the bear as their unofficial mascot. T-shirts, greeting cards and pins bearing his image appeared on store shelves faster than his victim could heal. “Bring another tourist, this one got away,” read the tagline underneath a photo of a menacing-looking Binky, Warburton’s shoe dangling from his mouth. Pickup- truck bumpers carried stickers suggesting he should run for governor, because he would “take a bite out of crime.”
Then, six weeks later, the unthinkable happened: Binky struck again, wrapping his jaws around yet another unsuspecting tourist – this time, a teenager. After a long night of drinking, the boy and his friend scaled the six-foot fence that surrounded the back of the park. Perhaps on a dare, the youths stripped down, preparing to slip through the fence and take a dip in Binky’s pool. At that time of night, the polar bear cage would have appeared empty. The boys may have thought Binky and his den-mate, Nuka, had been locked away – only they weren’t. Startled by the commotion, Binky pounced at the boys, who were still on the outside of the cage, and snagged one in his jaws. The victim’s friend pulled back on his arm, and Binky released his grip. “The extent of injuries and nature were not released,” Lampi wrote in a letter to zoo staff years after the incident. “Rumours were that he would not be diluting the gene pool.”
Despite the horrific nature of his attacks, Alaskans stood by their bloodthirsty bear. “The Alaska Zoo was flooded with cards, letters and phone calls in support of the zoo and Binky,” says Lampi. “This support came from the community, state, nation and even internationally.” Even then-zoo director Sammy Seawell blamed the tourists, not Binky. “I feel sorry for the people who got hurt, but in both cases it was their fault,” she told the Beaver County Times following the second mauling.
When Binky succumbed to a parasitic infection a year later, Alaskans made a pilgrimage to his memorial. On the Saturday following his death, the zoo forgave its entrance fee and hundreds showed up for an official ceremony. “There was a pretty good turnout for a rainy day,” says Lampi. Solemn bagpipes wailed. At Binky’s cage, mourners laid flowers and cards – not to mention sneakers.
Although there is no official gravesite for the zoo’s 20-year resident, Warburton’s shoe is displayed behind glass as a grim sort of tribute. But perhaps the most fitting memorial is the polar bear fortress, built five years after Binky’s death. Although the enclosure’s high security has so far deterred additional Warburtons, Lampi isn’t convinced the zoo won’t see yet another overzealous tourist.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Lampi wrote in the letter to staff. “You can only make it more difficult for people to get in where they don’t belong. There is no prevention against stupidity.”