Zoos use myth of disappearing polar bears to breed them in captivity

Ironically, just as I was about to remind readers that we are entering the peak period of polar bear births around the Arctic (see previous post, “December is polar bear nativity month”), I came across an article about breeding polar bears in captivity — getting the bears to give birth in zoos.

Hudson the polar bear cub moved in January 2013 from the Toronto Zoo, where he was hand-raised after being rejected by his mother, to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, Winnipeg. The Assiniboine Park Zoo were also the recent recipients of a cub orphaned when its mother was shot in the aftermath of a polar bear attack in Churchill.

Hudson the polar bear cub is a zoo-born polar bear. He moved in January 2013 from the Toronto Zoo, where he was hand-raised after being rejected by his mother, to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, Winnipeg. The Assiniboine Park Zoo were also the recent recipients of a cub orphaned when its mother was shot after a polar bear attack in Churchill. Photo from Toronto Zoo.

The newspaper article I saw was all about how technically difficult the generation of polar bear cubs has been for the Toronto Zoo (Canada) but it was the premise for the breeding program itself that caught my attention: to save them from extinction.

The zoo is not waiting until the bears are down to the last few hundred (or even thousands) – no, the zoo is starting now, while polar bears are as plentiful as they have been in the last 40 years, to prepare for their demise.

From a National Post (December 13, 2013) story (“As polar bear populations decline, zoos are keen to breed the carnivorous mammals in captivity — but it’s tricky”) we have this remarkable statement:

Global warming is being blamed for steep declines in polar bear population in the wild.[my bold]

No wonder so many polar bear lovers have such a false impression of the status of polar bears worldwide: here yet another journalist (Peter Kuitenbrouwer) either confuses predictions of steep declines that might occur decades from now with the current population status — or he confuses a reported decline of one regional population with a global decline.

Regular readers here know this by now but let me state it again: polar bear numbers are not declining worldwide, in fact they are increasing overall. One single subpopulation, Western Hudson Bay, may have declined slightly in recent years but its current status is mired in controversy because much of the data collected has not been published.

Using the argument that polar bear might decline to worrisome numbers decades from now to justify starting a captive-breeding program for the bears now is absurd.

Last year, there was a similar story in the Washington Post (April 9, 2012): “Zoos want to import polar bears to save the species.

To “save the species”? But wait, don’t zoos need the money collected from paying customers to stay in business these days? And how do zoos make money? Why, by having exhibits that people clamor to see!

There are several ways to get polar bear cubs for display: trade with other zoos, breed existing bears in captivity or accept the donation of cubs captured in the wild. For example, here is the outcome of that Churchill attack I reported on earlier this fall, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press (November 19, 2003):

“An 11-month-old female polar bear, orphaned after its mother was shot following the attack on two people in Churchill earlier this month, will find a new home at the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

The province said today the decision was made following a lengthy discussion between research scientists, the Town of Churchill, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy and Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.

“Providing this cub a second chance at life in the IPBCC is the best possible outcome in this situation,” said James Duncan, director, Wildlife Branch, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship in a statement.

According to this CBC account about that orphaned Churchill cub at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (November 4 2013):

“The zoo plans to display all three bears, and possibly one more currently being held in Argentina, in a new exhibit titled Journey to Churchill beginning in the summer of 2014.

Sounds to me like zoos want to cash in on the great marketing draw of polar bears – and especially, polar bear cubs — which I would guess might be second only to pandas as money-makers for a zoo.

This is a big turnaround from the days, not so long ago, when folks protested over large carnivores being kept in captivity – when activists successfully pressured zoos to get rid of such exhibits.

Here’s one example. If you recall, I used a photo of the polar bears at the Stanley Park Zoo in Vancouver, which I took myself back in the early 1970s, in my first blog post, entitled “Cooling the polar bear spin.

The Stanley Park Zoo was free in those days, as were many museums, but few such attractions are without an admission charge today. The account quoted from below speaks to the draw of that free polar bear exhibit at the Stanley Park Zoo. Think of the money those crowds would generate with a price on each head!

After the Hudson’s Bay Company donated four polar bears to the zoo in 1962, these displays quickly became the most popular attraction at the zoo. Vancouver schoolchildren were allowed to choose names for Stanley Park’s newest residents, and they decided on Nootka, Jubilee II, and Prince & Princess Rupert.

StanleyParkBears_zps5f8bacea geocaching story

On a daily basis, throngs of tourists would mingle with the locals, everyone jostling for a glimpse of the polar bears diving, swimming, and playing. Often, when the crowds were just too thick, folks would wander over to the display next door where the black bears and brown bears lived. These smaller bears weren’t nearly as popular because they seemed to be asleep most of the time.”  [my bold, photo in original]

Another online account (from 2005) suggests one of the reasons that the zoo finally closed:

“Tuk, the longest-lived polar bear on record, was yellow [from algae in the water] when he rescued a kitten from his moat at the Stanley Park Zoo in Vancouver in 1983, and was still yellow when he died on December 9, 1997, at age 37, having long outlived the defunct zoo itself.

Tuk’s fur actually contributed to the demise of the zoo. Though Tuk seemed content there, photos of the “green” bear became a staple of literature distributed by the Vancouver Green Party, whose slate closed the zoo after winning election to the city parks board.” [my bold]

My, how times have changed!

Or did I simply miss the strident protests by polar bear-loving activist organizations like Greenpeace, WWF and Polar Bears International against both the Toronto Zoo and the Assiniboine Park Zoo for keeping and breeding polar bears in captivity?

Send me the links if you find reports of such protests, I’ll post them here.

[Update below added shortly after posting, accidentally left out]

Don’t expect a protest from Polar Bears International: they’re all for it. From the Washington Post article mentioned above (from 2012):

Robert Buchanan, president of Polar Bears International, a group that works to help the animals, said displaying them in zoos could represent the best way to persuade the public to make such cuts.

“The only way at this time to save bears is to have people change their habits, and the way to do that is through zoos and aquariums,” he said. “Polar bears are just ambassadors for their friends in the Arctic.”

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