Zoos abrogate their position of trust by misleading the public about polar bears

Since at least 2007, zoos around the world have proudly partnered with climate change activist organization Polar Bears International to ‘educate’ the public about the plight of polar bears. Although contrary to all expectations, polar bear numbers have increased slightly since the abrupt decline of sea ice in 2007 yet zoos are still promoting the false message that polar bears have already been gravely harmed by lack of sea ice.

CTV News on pb sightings Labrador as climate change warning

A news clip that aired on Canadian television in April 2019 was ostensibly about recent sightings of polar bears in Labrador (which I discussed here). But it digressed rapidly into a baseless diatribe about polar bears as victims of climate change, delivered by an animal keeper from the Toronto Zoo presented as an ‘expert’ on this topic.

See it here (about 4 minutes long).

And while I have no doubt that Toronto Zoo curator Maria Frankie is indeed an expert in keeping mammals in captivity, she appears to have zero qualifications to speak with any critical scientific authority on climate change, sea ice variability, or polar bear survival in the wild.

Frankie is complicit in spreading misinformation about polar bears to an unwary public (including children) as a method of spurring political action on climate change as surely as David Attenborough is to blame for spreading misinformation about Pacific walrus. She is being used by PBI but is too naive to realize it.

The CTV interview shows Maria Frankie has learned to flawlessly repeat the out-of-date ‘educational’ material provided by PBI on these topics (see here and here, for example) but appears not to have read any recent scientific literature herself. She is clearly unaware that most polar bear populations around the world are thriving with less summer sea ice (Aars 2018; Aars et al. 2017; Crockford 2017; Obbard et al. 2016; Regehr et al. 2018; Rode et al. 2014, 2018; Stapleton et al. 2014; SWG 2016; York et al. 2016).

Indeed, Frankie seems unaware that many of the ‘facts’ about polar bears she has been taught to pass along to zoo visitors are now known to be wrong: they are assumptions about polar bear behaviour that PBI’s Stephen Amstrup made back in the early 2000s that he is too proud to admit are quite wrong (Amstrup et al. 2007; Crockford 2017; 2019b and references therein).

Frankie, along with zoo personnel around the world, squander the public’s trust with their activist stance on climate change. They use misinformation about polar bear (and walrus) conservation status as an emotional cudgel to browbeat visitors into ‘caring’ about climate change to justify the fact that polar bears, especially cubs, are huge revenue generators for their organizations.

In recent years, zoos have presented their advocacy for polar bear conservation as a selfless act even though they keep and breed the bears (despite the poor survival of cubs in captivity) because newborns that live make them pots of money.

Polar bear numbers are nowhere near low enough to be breeding them in captivity for species-conservation reasons: the official latest estimate is 26,000 (at 2015) and counts since then bring the total to around 28,500 (Crockford 2019a; Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015). A more plausible estimate that accounts for areas that have never been surveyed or have out-of-date counts is about 39,000 (Crockford 2019b).

Using the argument that polar bears might decline to worrisome low numbers many decades from now to justify a captive-breeding program now is absurd. Not to mention the fact that cubs born in captivity can never be released into the wild anyway because they have not be taught by their mothers how to catch seals (see pdf of Amstrup’s appeal to zoos from 2012 here).

Polar bears are kept and breed in captivity to generate revenue for zoos. Polar Bears International have convinced zoos that spreading false and misleading information to their visitors about polar bear conservation is a noble rationalization for putting bears on display for huge profits.

However, zoos are not helping to save polar bears from extinction: they are needlessly frightening children with messages of doom. The conclusion reached by the IUCN Red List assessment in 2015 was that polar bears are not at risk of going extinct by the end of the 21st century (Wiig et al. 2015; Regher et al. 2016). But Steven Amstrup, who developed the 2007 model that said polar bears would be gone by 2100, is still telling zoo keepers and curators that polar bears are on their way to extinction.

References

Aars, J. 2018. Population changes in polar bears: protected, but quickly losing habitat. Fram Forum Newsletter 2018. Fram Centre, Tromso. Download pdf here (32 mb).

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G. & Douglas, D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. US Geological Survey. Reston, VA. Pdf here

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

Crockford, S.J. 2019a. State of the Polar Bear Report 2018. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 32, London. pdf here.

Crockford, S.J. 2019b. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Obbard, M.E., Cattet, M.R.I., Howe, E.J., Middel, K.R., Newton, E.J., Kolenosky, G.B., Abraham, K.F. and Greenwood, C.J. 2016. Trends in body condition in polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation in relation to changes in sea ice. Arctic Science 2:15-32. 10.1139/AS-2015-0027

Regehr, E.V., Laidre, K.L, Akçakaya, H.R., Amstrup, S.C., Atwood, T.C., Lunn, N.J., Obbard, M., Stern, H., Thiemann, G.W., & Wiig, Ø. 2016. Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters 12: 20160556. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556

Regehr, E.V., Hostetter, N.J., Wilson, R.R., Rode, K.D., St. Martin, M., Converse, S.J. 2018. Integrated population modeling provides the first empirical estimates of vital rates and abundance for polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Scientific Reports 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-34824-7 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34824-7

Rode, K.D., Regehr, E.V., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2014. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Global Change Biology 20(1):76-88. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract

Rode, K. D., R. R. Wilson, D. C. Douglas, V. Muhlenbruch, T.C. Atwood, E. V. Regehr, E.S. Richardson, N.W. Pilfold, A.E. Derocher, G.M Durner, I. Stirling, S.C. Amstrup, M. S. Martin, A.M. Pagano, and K. Simac. 2018. Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity. Global Change Biology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13933/full

Stapleton S., Atkinson, S., Hedman, D., and Garshelis, D. 2014. Revisiting Western Hudson Bay: using aerial surveys to update polar bear abundance in a sentinel population. Biological Conservation 170: 38-47. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320713004618#

SWG [Scientific Working Group to the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Polar Bear]. 2016. Re-Assessment of the Baffin Bay and Kane Basin Polar Bear Subpopulations: Final Report to the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Polar Bear. +636 pp. http://www.gov.nu.ca/documents-publications/349

Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Ursus maritimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. Available from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22823/0 [accessed Nov. 28, 2015]. See the supplement for population figures.

York, J., Dowsley, M., Cornwell, A., Kuc, M. and Taylor, M. 2016. Demographic and traditional knowledge perspectives on the current status of Canadian polar bear subpopulations. Ecology and Evolution 6(9):2897-2924. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2030

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