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Fond memories of Major

A MOMENT IN TIME: Fond memories of a ‘major’ friend

National Polar Bear Day is observed annually on Feb. 27. It is a day to learn more about polar bears and conservation efforts worldwide. It is also a day for many long-standing supporters of the Walter D. Stone Zoo Memorial Zoo to recall fond memories of everyone’s favorite polar bear, Major.

Join us on Thursday Sept 8, 2022 at 7pm to hear Zoo New England’s John Linehan tell us more about the story of Stone Zoo and its inhabitants such as Major. 

Major, whose formal name is Ursa Major, arrived at the Stone Zoo in 1979.

Major was adored by tens of thousands of visitors during his 21 years at our local historic zoo. Sadly, he was euthanized in June of 2000 at the age of 33 after it was determined that he was suffering from advanced stages of liver cancer with no options to restore his health.

The archives of the Stoneham Historical Society & Museum contain much authentication of this popular tourist attraction that was begun in 1905 by Charles Price who was the Superintendent of the Middlesex Fells Reservation and merely gave shelter to many animals indigenous to the area. He welcomed all ages to visit him and his personal collection anytime.

Eventually, the Metropolitan Parks Commission began to help with the costs of feeding the animals and building cages. It was deemed worthy of a more formal setting and oversite and around 1912, was named The Middlesex Fells Zoo. Mr. Walter D. Stone became the first professional director in 1959. He and his family lived in the old Gould Homestead (site of current parking lot) and were the last residents before its demolition. After an untimely death, the zoo was renamed for him in 1969.

Major plays with a tire in his pool at the Stone Zoo.

The amazing evolution of this local treasure from that humble beginning is a story unto itself. At this time, the focus is squarely on what is still considered the major attraction at 149 Pond St., Stoneham.

Ursa Major was captured in Siberia in 1966 and moved to the Worcester Science Center (now known as the Ecotarium) in 1971 before being transferred to the Stone Zoo in 1979. His mate, Ursa Minor and offspring, Kenda, remained together at the original location.

On Nov. 12, 1990, state budget cuts caused the Stone Zoo to cease operation. A widespread grassroots all-volunteer group, Friends to Reopen Stone Zoo, emerged and launched a united outcry with a relentless public awareness campaign disputing the closure.

During this time, the zoo fell into disrepair and most of the larger animals were relocated except for that great big bear who continued to be well cared for and quickly evolved into the cult hero for the public campaign. His image adorned all kinds of fundraising items – T-shirts, sweatshirts, ceramic mugs, bumper stickers, posters and notecards. His annual birthday bash was another way to draw attention to the plight of the zoo and rally people to the site.

Often very cold temperatures and snowy conditions didn’t deter the legion of staunch admirers who lined up at the entrance ready to get back inside the gates to participate in activities in his honor around his exhibit area. Scores of talented individuals and groups of volunteers offered complimentary ice carving and face painting, card making and kids crafts. Radio and cable TV stations promoted the event with on-site costumed characters and giveaways.

The highlight of the gathering (besides the gigantic birthday cake for the guests) was always the excitement of watching Major dive into his icy pool to fetch his gift from the keepers – a hearty “fish-sicle!” Throngs of well-wishers enthusiastically sang “Happy Birthday” as the finale to a fun family moment in time.

State budget cuts caused the Stone Zoo to cease operation in 1990, leading to the creation of the Friends to Reopen Stone Zoo.

The event was a collaborative success coordinated by the Friends to Reopen Stone Zoo volunteers, incredibly devoted (and very minimal) staff, generous area businesses and diehard zoo advocates. Eventually, per Joanne Harriman’s book, “the untiring efforts of this group, along with the persistence of our legislators, culminated in the reopening of the zoo on June 6, 1992.”

The Senate established a private, non-profit corporation called Commonwealth Zoological Corporation to manage both Stone Zoo and Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

Sadly, and in the midst of these uplifting events, our hero was euthanized in June of 2000 at the age of 33 after his cancer diagnosis.

In the years that followed those turbulent but successful times, doing business as Zoo New England, the 26 acres has been upgraded, old outdated cages eliminated or space repurposed and many new exhibits created. The result is a highly successful and accessible destination offering educational and entertaining animal attractions, exhibits and encounters.

For those readers of a certain age, Major’s presence at the zoo is still greatly missed and his memory, as well as the history of the Stone Zoo, deserves to be kept alive.

Upon his death, another nonprofit group with strong ties to the zoo, partnered with the (then) Stoneham Savings Bank to establish the ‘Major, the Polar Bear” Scholarship. The annual $1000 award ensures that he is not forgotten and encourages higher education in the fields of science or the environment simultaneously. The first award was made in June 2001 and has continued each year thanks to the continued support of Salem Five and generous donations by many individuals from many communities.

It’s obvious that the huge furry icon continues to inspire all ages and hold a “major” place in our hearts.

Join us on Thursday Sept 8, 2022 to hear Zoo New England’s John Linehan tell us more about the story of Stone Zoo and its inhabitants such as Major.