Monday, 13 February 2012

Wildlife Rehabilitation's ultimate goal is to return the healed back to the wild.

The keeping of polar bears in zoos is being challenged around the world. While they may still be popular display animals, they are among the worst candidates for captivity.

Debbie had died , she was forty two. Forty one of those years in a cage at Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I remember seeing her down in her grotto, possibly the only thing sadder than her was me. Nothing in my mind dampens the human spirit more than looking into a cage at a captive animal. When she died Debbie held the record for the longest living polar bear in captivity. The zoo carried that distinction around like a badge of honor. Now Assiniboine Zoo wants to breathe new life into the antiquated facility. With a whack of money the building has begun; the crowning piece being a multi million dollar Polar Bear Conservation Center. The proposed Center will have more than a few components, one being a row of refurbished cages that is designated as the “rehabilitation” area where needy polar bears are kept once “rescued” from the wild. A pious deception.

Another component will be the brand new polar bear exhibit with captured wild polar bears from Churchill as the main attraction. The new and improved exhibit claims to be twenty times bigger than the old exhibit. A bit of trivia puts things in perspective; Lions and Tigers have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild. Polar bears have one million times less space. Twenty times nothing is nothing.

A few years back polar bears from Churchill were found languishing in a touring Mexican circus. It struck a nerve and there was a renewed demand by Zoo Check Canada on Conservation Manitoba, a branch of the Provincial government in charge of wildlife, to find out how this happened and to make sure Churchill bears will not be found all beat up in some third world lock-up... or the equivalent, again. In response the department drafted a set of standards that laid out the parameters of an acceptable holding facility ( cage ) before any bear would be handed over. This set of standards applied to the facilities in Manitoba as well; hence the new improved polar bear cages.

I met the man who had drafted up the standards, a biologist for Conservation Manitoba, we were looking at a polar bear through the window of the Polar Bear Lodge in Churchill, he was there as a guest of Polar Bears International, an organization that has no problem with capturing wild polar bears and putting them in cages. He remarked to me how amazing the polar bears were... even more so now that he finally got to see them in their natural surroundings....??? I was thinking that if this nice man had spent time observing polar bears in the wild before he worked on the standards; watched how they moved through an arctic landscape of ice and snow, how the clear magical light that can only be found in northern latitudes gets caught in the fur of their great coat, I am sure he would have grabbed a map and a marking pen and traced the outline of the whole Canadian Arctic and handed that to his superiors explaining the size of containment for the polar bear has already been determined!

But that didn't happen, so now the bears of Churchill are going to be closely monitored for signs that they need to be rescued and rehabilitated. What makes it all a slap in the face is that no rescued bear will be returned to the wild no matter how much rehabilitation the animal received. A life sentence.

The website for the Center says they will take the injured, abandoned and troublesome. But they really want the abandoned. Specifiably abandoned cubs...oh my do they ever want the cubs....polar bear cubs are the holy grail of zoos throughout the world, like hitting the lottery, grabbing the golden ring.....nothing, with the exception of Panda bears, can haul the people in and get their wallets open like cute polar bear cubs. Remember Knut. There will be huge pressure on Conservation Manitoba to find bear cubs that need saving. So the question has to be asked ... other than the enormous entertainment value why do these cubs need saving ?

You will find no other mother on the planet regardless of species who will protect and nurture their offspring to the degree a polar bear will. The hardships this mother endures during the first year of the little ones lives to ensure their survival is extraordinarily severe. She has so much of herself invested in the cubs survival that the term abandoned does not apply. There are no abandoned polar bear cubs. Separated or orphaned yes. A mother separated from her cubs will never stop looking for them; she can't find them at the zoo. Or they may have been pushed away by the mother because she was mating or pregnant either way it was time for the cubs to go on their own.

Orphaned cubs for whatever reason are rare and implies the mother is dead. This happens in the wild and the cubs have a real fight on their hands to survive, but one cannot discount instinct at any age. It is known that other family groups will accept an orphaned cub but for the most part if the cubs are orphaned before their first season out on the ice hunting for seal with their mother the outlook is not good. A cruel fate but one that is part of the cycle of nature. And one that we have no business sticking our nose in.

If the cubs survive the first year they are well on there way;  having learned invaluable lessons from mom during the four months hunting seal out on the ice and the summer months on land. Who are we to say they are not capable of surviving on their own come fall. It would be hard but not impossible. This is what makes the polar bear what it is, their survival instinct is constantly evolving. If only a small percentage of the orphaned cubs survive that makes the species that much stronger, that much more capable of overcoming whatever mother nature has in store for them.

For those who think capturing polar bears and putting them in zoos will keep them from becoming extinct I say to you without any doubt in my mind that when the last trace of mankind is nothing but dust caught in a rock crevice.... somewhere on this banged up planet will be a polar bear. But only if we give them the chance to survive on their own.


  1. After seeing the polar bears up close & personal, in Churchill, I can't figure out why anyone would ever want to put one in a cage or a containment area. They belong out in the wild, where if you wish to look at them, you can enjoy nature's beauty at it's best.

  2. Reading your article makes me afraid for the Manitoba bears!

    1. Me too. Assinibone Park is an awful place.

  3. Love this blog! thanks Dennis

  4. What the Manitoba zoo should do is take already captive polar bears from zoos that do not have the proper weather conditions or enclosures. This would be beneficial to both the polar bears and the zoo. Polar bears living in zoos, in countries like Mexico, suffer incredibly from the heat. Why wouldn't they do that instead? Leave the wild polar bears where they belong....IN THE WILD!!!
    Sheila from Ontario