This/close. Can you bear it?

Melody Alleman of Lockport, gets a close up view of Hudson the polar bear as he glides underwater.

It's impossible to go nose-to-nose with a 730-pound polar bear and not feel at least a hint of panic.

Not for your safety, of course. Hudson, the polar in question, is sequestered behind shatterproof glass and, to be honest, doesn't seem interested in harming his fans. No, the panic sets in when you realize this big, burly dude is a threatened species, thanks in part to your own energy-hogging.

The Brookfield Zoo's new Great Bear Wilderness, which opens Saturday, devotes 7.5 acres to polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, bald eagles and bison. The $27.3 million project, funded by individual donors, is the largest exhibit undertaken by the zoo and aims to re-create the North American wilderness with its hilly terrain, prairie grasses, fallen trees and, most important, wild creatures.

"These are big, majestic, charismatic species who are very closely connected with people," says Stuart Strahl, CEO and president of the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the zoo. "We feel these animals spiritually."

He's right, of course. You can't wander through the paths and witness these powerful animals and read the attendant educational displays and not feel an emotional connection. Which is what the folks at Brookfield are counting on.

Bear keeper Stephanie Rhodes says she still gets goose bumps when she watches the polar bears swimming in the underwater viewing area, and she hopes viewers will be similarly moved.

"It inspires me to really care about these animals, and that's what we really want is to get people to be inspired and to act," Rhodes says. "We can all help by conserving resources such as saving water, cutting down on greenhouse gases by not driving to work, trying to ride your bike or use public transportation. There are a lot of things we can do in small ways, and if everyone does something small, it'll turn out to be a big impact."

Displays throughout the exhibit ("Polar bears and climate change: Our behavior affects their survival") send the message home.

But polar bears are only part of the wilderness exhibit. The first animals you encounter are the bison, who wander on 1.5 acres of prairie, followed by two bald eagles that live in a 1,200-square-foot, 24-foot-high meshed aviary. Both eagles suffered wing injuries before arriving at Brookfield and can only fly short distances, hence the relatively small quarters.

"Usually it's from hitting power lines or diving for a roadside kill and encountering a vehicle," senior bird keeper Lee Stahl says of the birds' injuries.

Next comes Regenstein Wolf Woods, the zoo's pre-existing wolf habitat (opened in 2004), now incorporated into the Great Bear Wilderness. You can view the three Mexican gray wolves from a distance outdoors, or enter the viewing building and watch through an 8-foot-high one-way window, putting you within inches of the wolves if they decide to meander in that direction.

Finally, you arrive at the three bear habitats. Two grizzly brothers, Jim and Axhi, roam between their land and water environs, foraging for food, chewing on maple leaves and going for the occasional dip in the 80,000-gallon pool. Three polar bears live in two separate habitats nearby — male Aussie and female Arki in one and their 3-year-old son, Hudson, in another. Animal keepers can rotate the grizzlies and polars among all three spaces.

Brookfield regulars may recognize Jim and Axhi, who arrived at the zoo in 1995 after being orphaned by a hunter in Alaska. Bear keeper Jessica Miller says the 15-year-old brothers appear to be enjoying their new living quarters, and she hopes the new exhibit — which allows visitors to get within inches of the bears — brings people emotionally closer to them as well.

"We hope people fall in love with them on a whole new level," she says. "We hope it inspires people to make a difference in their lives — reduce your carbon footprint, save energy, buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycle, buy recycled goods. The truth is, without ice caps these polar bears won't be able to survive.

"The time to make a difference is right now."

Great Bear Wilderness

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily starting Saturday. (Summer hours of 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. start Memorial Day.)

Where: Brookfield Zoo, 3300 Golf Road, Brookfield

How much: Free with zoo admission ($13.50 for adults, $9.50 for children 3-11, free for children 2 and under); 708-688-8000 or