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This report describes three possibly related incidences of encephalitis, two of them lethal, in captive polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Standard diagnostic methods failed to identify pathogens in any of these cases. A comprehensive, three-stage diagnostic 'pipeline' employing both standard serological methods and new DNA microarray and next generation sequencing-based diagnostics was developed, in part as a consequence of this initial failure. This pipeline approach illustrates the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of these tools in determining pathogen caused deaths in non-model organisms such as wildlife species and why the use of a limited number of diagnostic tools may fail to uncover important wildlife pathogens.