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Meet the woman who hand-raised four polar bears at the Kansas City Zoo

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- While Jane Gooddall is well-known for her work with primates, there’s a lesser known Jane… make that Jan, who raised dozens of baby animals, everything from birds to primates to polar bears.

She’s one of very few people to say she successfully raised four polar bears from birth and lived to tell about it, and it all happened at the Kansas City Zoo.

Taking a trip to the Kansas City Zoo with Jan Armstrong means going to a zoo that many of us wouldn’t recognize today.

“If you went through all those bushes, you’d find the old units that the bears were in," Armstrong told FOX4.

To understand the zoo she sees, you must see the fascinating chapter in her life, a true story about a lady and her bears.

Armstrong hand-raised four polar bears in the 1970’s: a girl, a boy, and twin girls. She took care of them from the moment they were born until they were ready for zoo life in a house right on zoo property. It once stood where the elephants now stand.  She shared the home with her husband, Jack, who was the zoo’s director at the time.

"I miss being with the animals because it was a privilege. Because when you’re the family, then you see the normal behaviors or the natural behaviors,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong never had her own children. She says her children all had fur and feathers. But the polar bears made her especially unique; she’s the only woman that we’ve found who successfully hand-raised four polar bear cubs.

She had to learn along the way how to care for these soon-to-be natural born predators, and just like the mother of a newborn human, Armstrong experienced the sleepless nights and constant vigilance.

"Now the little polar bears, of all the mammals I had anything to do with, the mammal infants, were the most helpless for the longest time. They didn’t open their eyes until they were about a month old,” Armstrong said. "And then it was three months before they started walking.”

Somewhere in between there they got teeth. And while most of her polar bears were relatively docile, she remembers her first cub Choo Choo was rather impatient and used those teeth.

“She wanted to eat five minutes ago. So I learned to adjust to her personality,” Armstrong said.

And that’s what Armstrong did for each of her “babies.”  She felt it was important to exhibit all their natural behaviors, and she always made sure they had a companion. Borealis, for example, had a baby hyena as his “friend.”

While Armstrong says she loved all of her animals, Borealis was different.

"He was quite the character. Borealis was special,” she said.

Armstrong checked on her “babies” after they were all grown up at the zoo, and they knew she was checking on them.

“I’d go walking by them every day. They knew who I was by my smell," Armstrong said.

After her husband left the zoo, the new director closed the polar bear exhibit and sent the bears to other homes. FOX4 learned Choo Choo was donated to a zoo in Germany in 1990 and died at the zoo in 1996. She never birthed cubs of her own.

The other three cubs, Borealis, Polara and Aurora, went to zoos in Japan. Those zoos later closed.

FOX4 contacted the Japanese polar bear program manager, who said that unfortunately he had no further records on them.

The Kansas City Zoo donated the mother and father bears, Eski and Mo, to Ringling Brothers Circus in 1980.  At the time, the Ringling brothers used polar bears in their show. The circus is no longer operating and there are no additional records.

While parting with her cubs wasn’t a happy occasion, Armstrong always knew the bears would move on eventually.

"The idea was to raise an animal to be the best whatever it was, and my emotions didn’t come into the picture,” she said.

To this day, Armstrong continues to check on the animals. She’s a passionate donor of time, talents, and finances to the Kansas City Zoo, and the caretaker in her hasn’t gone away with time.

Armstrong met one of Berlin’s keepers while we were visiting the zoo with her.

"I had twin polar bears, the last ones that I raised, that it was a snowy day. I took them out, and they loved sliding on the snow,” she recalled.

It was a walk through a memory, and a glimpse of a legacy she built at the zoo.

Although that chapter of her life ended, the zoo she knew 50 years ago is still alive in her memory.

Armstrong took care of all sorts of animals, birds, felines, and gorillas. She said polar bears weren’t necessarily her favorite animals.  She preferred felines and especially gorillas.  Her favorite was a gorilla named Molly.

Armstrong also says the way the zoo is operated now makes her proud. She believes it’s under good leadership, and she hopes people continue to support it.

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