02/14/2013 01:29 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Hudson's Day: new polar bear makes debut at Winnipeg zoo's conservation centre

WINNIPEG - Hudson the polar bear's celebrity power was immediately evident when he took his first public romp around his enclosure at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

"There he is! There he is!" someone observed Thursday as a furry head with a charcoal nose, two button eyes and cupcake ears poked out of his den.

The 15-month-old bruin then squeezed his rather broad backside through the opening and lumbered toward a clapping crowd that cheered "hip, hip, hooray!"

He cemented his star status by sliding down a small embankment on his big pigeon-toed paws. A ramble over to the fence where he stood on his hind legs to show off his formidable bulk — already at 185 kilograms — sealed the deal.

"Only 15 months old!" someone exclaimed.

Hudson is the first inhabitant of the Winnipeg zoo's International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. The outdoor part of the exhibit has been renovated and expanded specifically to accommodate polar bears and is three times its original size. The hope is that the centre will be a world-class attraction for tourists and researchers.

"The polar bear is a sentinel species with respect to climate change," said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger before Hudson was introduced. "As goes the polar bear, so goes the planet.

"And as the polar bear becomes more threatened ... it means we have to be very vigilant to protect our planet from climate change. The exhibit here gives a very good illustration of what's happening around the world these days."

Selinger predicted the exhibit will attract attention for three reasons.

"We are the global centre for polar bear conservation, education and research," he said. "This facility here will allow families from Winnipeg and tourists from around the world to come and see Hudson and other threatened members of the polar bear species, to learn about climate change."

The $4.5-million centre will also provide a home for orphaned, injured or problem bears.

Hudson is adapting well after arriving on a cargo jet two weeks ago from the Toronto zoo, where he was born, said Tim Sinclair-Smith, director of zoological operations in Winnipeg.

Hudson's bio on the zoo's website says he enjoys icy snacks filled with fish or vegetables and rolling around in snow or mud.

Sinclair-Smith said Hudson is friendly, likes people and loves Winnipeg's frosty winter conditions.

That was certainly evident Thursday as the bear frolicked in front of well-wishers, batted at a red ball and chowed down on treats.

Hudson has big pawprints to fill.

He replaces the zoo's beloved Debby, who was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest polar bear when she died in November 2008. She was 42 — almost twice the age her kind usually reach in the wild.

Hundreds of people turned out for Debby's memorial and the zoo received countless letters from around the world.

The big white bear's statue, donated by the province of Manitoba, stands in her honour at the zoo.

Debby was not forgotten on Thursday. Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz made sure of that.

"I know many of you remember one of the treasures that we had here not that long ago back in 2008, Debby," he said. "It's been five long years."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Greg Selinger was Winnipeg mayor.