Zoos use polar bears to spur action on climate change – not to save them

Media outlets have recently been having collective orgasms over photos and videos of a three month old polar bear cub born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, which has again raised the issue of why it is now acceptable for polar bears to be held and bred in captivity.

Zoo bear at Columbus_after birth in November 2015

Newborn polar bear cub ‘Nora’ Columbus Zoo handout

The myth being propagated by zoos and their supporters is that it’s necessary to save polar bears from extinction.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth – this is all about pressuring people to care about climate change. Polar bears are merely  a marketing tool to spur action on climate change.  That’s not my opinion but the plan put in place in 2012 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Polar Bears International.

Oddly, few animal rights activists are objecting (or at least, not objecting very strenuously) to zoo displays of captive polar bear cubs – obvious money-making draws for zoos – which were so vehemently condemned in the 1970s that most zoos gave them up.

Now, the practice is defended and everyone seems to feel this is the greatest thing since the invention of the telephone. [Update 19 February 2016: courtesy the BBC, we can add Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland to the list of zoos using “we’re saving the polar bears” justification for breeding the bears in captivity]

The surprise is that disgraced climate scientist Michael Mann, promoter of the infamous hockey stick of global temperatures, is involved in all this.

Storm_Assiniboine Zoo_April 21 2014

Polar bear cub ‘Storm’ Assiniboine Zoo handout, April 21, 2014

To add insult to injury, in their zeal to push the climate change message, many of these appeal-to-emotion stories contain blatant misinformation about polar bears (my bold):

 “Ohio’s newest bear cub, Nora, is bringing a ray of hope to conservationists across the world, who are focused on rescuing the quickly dwindling polar bear population.” (8 February 2016)

Disappearing sea ice is causing polar bear populations to plummet, with only 20,000 to 25,000 now in the wild.” (6 February 2016 HuffPost)

Polar bears need our help,” says Columbus Zoo and Aquarium president and chief executive Tom Stalf, as numbers for the Arctic creature hover between 20,000-25,000 in the wild.”(9 February 2016 Express UK)

“Quickly dwindling”? Plummeting populations? Populations hovering around tens of thousands? Hogwash.

There are more polar bears now than there have been in the last 50 years. The 2015 IUCN Red List assessment said in November that there are 22,000-31,000 bears and the population trend is unknown, not declining.

This is the danger of the IUCN Red List folks allowing a prophesied future decline be given the same conservation status as one with an actual decline in population size – it encourages people with influence to think all ‘vulnerable’ species are in the same state.

This estimate is up from about 5,000-15,000 bears in the 1960s – not down from some higher number. A truly dwindling (‘vulnerable’) population, like that of lions, has registered an actual decline in size (in their case, down from 9,615 lions in 1995 or so to about 7,455 lions in 2015.

African_Lion_3 wikipedia

How does breeding polar bears in zoos help their survival?

It doesn’t – because it can’t. More importantly, the bears don’t need any help right now.

The bears currently have a large population size and are widely distributed throughout their available habitat – both indicators of a healthy species.

But why are zoos on this “save the polar bear” bandwagon? Largely because back in 2012, Steven Amstrup from Polar Bears International (PBI – “save our sea ice“) made a special plea to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to use polar bears as a living icon to “engage” Americans and inform them about the dangers of “climate disruption.”

[Update Feb 2017: Link above no longer active but available via WayBack Machine here: https://web.archive.org/web/20160317002851/https://www.aza.org/membership/detail.aspx?id=26836 ]

In other words, they made a deal to encourage the display of polar bears in exhibits and the breeding of cubs in captivity to spur action on climate change, not to save the bears from extinction.

Steven Amstrup is the polar bear biologist behind the flawed predictive models used to get polar bears listed as threatened by the US Fish & Wildlife in 2008. Amstrup’s model was so lacking in appropriate science that the IUCN Red List Standards Committee insisted on a completely new approach for their 2015 assessment.

Not content with the reach of PBI, Amstrup wanted the captive audiences that zoos command:

Polar Bears International, is dedicated to ensuring polar bear survival by encouraging people to help stop climate change.The best way we know how to do this is to work through partners like zoos to reach their large audiences. pg. 30 of Climate Change Education, see below [my bold]

How big is that audience of zoo-goers that Amstrup wanted to tap into? According to a recent press release, 180 million people a year.

From the AZA/PBI partnership statement:

This partnership focuses on polar bears as powerful icons for the widespread impact of climate disruption on their arctic habitat. [my bold]

Nothing about this partnership involves saving polar bears – it’s all about a sleazy kind of emotional blackmail intended to get zoo visitors to worry enough about polar bear survival that they take some kind of action on the prophesied “climate disruption” threat.  Of course, in the short term it also increases revenues for both PBI and the zoos.

How do they get the message across to member zoos? They have PBI accredited “Arctic Ambassador Centers.” [see list below]

But they also have a book! Climate Change Education: A Primer for Zoos and Aquariums (2012). [pdf here]

AZA Climate change education cover

The chapter on climate change was written by Michael Mann (“we are the polar bear”) and the polar bear chapter by PBI’s Steven Amstrup. What a pair of educators!

The rest is a “how to” manual for zoo staff to pull off the emotional blackmail and the psychological manipulation of zoo visitors. Like this:

“Humans’ natural affinity and empathy toward animals makes zoos and aquariums ideal settings for new knowledge and behavior change.” (pg. 59).

But if zoo personnel are telling audiences that polar bear populations are “plummeting” and “dwindling,” as appears to be the case, it’s not education but misinformation. It’s deliberately frightening people, including children, in order to encourage them to pressure politicians to limit fossil fuels – a cause Amstrup has embraced that has had no proven impact on polar bears [oddly, no mention is made of the huge carbon footprint of polar bear research].

Polar bears Stanley park zoo_Crockford 1970s_web

Newborn polar bear cub ‘Nora’ Columbus Zoo handout

Finally, people need to realize that breeding polar bears in captivity cannot possibly assist wild populations of bears because they cannot be released back into the wild.

In fact, Amstrup admitted as much in his 2012 plea to AZA members, called The Future of Polar Bears.  By 2012, Amstrup was clearly frustrated that the changes with regard to limiting CO2 that he wanted to see were not happening fast enough, so he approached the AZA. [backup pdf here].

“As chief scientist for a nonprofit dedicated to saving wild polar bears and as former leader of polar bear research in Alaska, I have been dismayed to see how the general media has missed the point and conveyed factual errors regarding the role zoos can play in saving wild polar bears from extinction.

Four years after polar bears were declared “threatened,” there has been no official call for GHG mitigation. Inaction among our leaders means the public must take initiative to alter our path, and zoos can lead that call to action. The more people who have opportunity to see polar bears and understand their plight, the more likely we are to alter our warming path in time to save them.

Although recent media commentaries dwelled on possible polar bear reintroductions, the prolonged process during which mother bears teach offspring how to survive on the ice probably precludes reintroducing captive bred polar bears to the wild. [my bold]

That’s the bottom line (go tell all the kids and emotional polar bear lovers you know): captive-born polar bears can never be re-introduced into the wild because they won’t ever have the chance to learn how to capture seals for food. All these cute, cuddly-looking polar bear cubs will spend the rest of their lives in captivity, as long as ambassadors of climate change action are valued.  

StanleyParkBears_zps5f8bacea geocaching story

Stanley Park Zoo polar bears from Hudson Bay, ca. 1960s. More here.

Contact info for the AZA:
Association of Zoos and Aquariums
8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 710
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3314
Phone: 301-562-0777
Fax: 301-562-0888

List of Arctic Ambassador Centers certified by Polar Bears International (I’m assuming these all have polar bears on display).

The 2015 IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears – what it said

Yes, the status of Vulnerable was upheld but there is no projection contained in the report beyond 2050 (a limit of 3 generations beyond 2015). It states explicitly that the risk of a population decline of 80% or greater by 2050 is virtually zero (pg. 16) – the links and pdfs are below.

The IUCN standards committee have forced polar bear specialists to admit there is only a 70% chance that numbers will decline by 30% over the next 35 years: only slightly higher than a 50:50 chance. That means there is a 30% chance that the numbers WILL NOT decline by 30% over the next 35 years and no chance of extinction by 2050. See for yourself in the copies of the report and links to the online IUCN Red List assessment below.

Polar bears in 2015 are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN only on the basis of a possible (70% chance) decline in population numbers, not their current status: the current population trend is stated as UNKNOWN.

Citation for the IUCN Red List report:
Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., Regehr, E. & Thiemann, G. 2015. Ursus maritimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. Published online here;
PDF copy of that report page: 2015 IUCN Red List Ursus maritimus (Polar Bear) – www_iucnredlist_org_Nov 18 2015

PDF of supplement, as issued: 2015 IUCN Red List report 22823_Ursus_maritimus; PDF of supplement, marked by SJC: 2015 IUCN Red List report MARKED 22823_Ursus_maritimus


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