This photo of polar bears came across my Facebook feed last week. If any photo could speak to the debate on global climate change, this is it – a mother bear and her cub clinging to a small raft of ice in the middle of a vast, unfrozen Arctic Ocean. Polar bears are an ice-dependent species that rely on sea ice as a platform to hunt seals and to raise their young. According to experts, the decline of that sea ice habitat due to a changing climate is the primary threat to polar bears. So it follows that the single most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming. If we don’t find a way to effectively reverse the cause of diminishing sea ice, scientists suggest, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive. But effectively addressing the increased atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases that are resulting in Arctic warming will require global action. I hate to be pessimistic, but what are the chances of humanity taking global action on anything?
Polar Bears in Zoos
As a young zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, I helped open what was at the time, a state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit that eliminated something every exhibit before that time had included – heavy, iron bars. The Toronto Zoo’s designers used dry moats, concrete walls, and thick glass windows.The coolest feature was underwater viewing into a large pool of filtered water. Although I had nothing to do with their acquisition, bears did not seem to be in short supply – from the young bear out of the Northwest Territories that had lost two toes to a fox trap, to the huge male we called Pooh from Churchill, Manitoba who had become a nuisance around the town that bordered his habitat on Hudson Bay. I believe we opened our new exhibit with five bears and probably could have found more, if we had the space.
Some twenty years later, I once again found myself in the midst of developing a state-of-the-art polar bear polar bear exhibit at the Toledo Zoo. This time I was the Deputy Director of the zoo and it was my team that was charged with finding bears, something that had become more difficult over the years. It also afforded me the opportunity to visit Churchill, Manitoba to see, first-hand, the fragile habitat in which they live. I have had a lot of contact with polar bears over the years. I have fed them, I have cleaned their dens, and I have been chased out of cages on several occasions during veterinary procedures when a bear woke up prematurely. They are wonderfully intelligent and charismatic creatures, but I have a hard time imagining a species that is less likely to adapt to being around humans. Weighing in at a thousand pounds or more, their beady eyes are expressionless; they are utterly fearless, and highly intelligent. I have seen a polar bear wiggle a paw under the caging into a hallway when people were present in a manner that indicated he could reach no farther. Anyone tempted to come toward the paw would have been in serious danger when they discovered he could grab them. When people ask me what is the most dangerous animal I have worked with, my answer is always the polar bear.
Are They Really in Trouble?
But even as reports are warning that climate change threatens polar bear populations across the world, some experts insist they are doing just fine. Most populations of polar bears appear to be as abundant and as productive as ever, one expert told a Canadian television audience. He suggested that the threats from global warming are based on “climate models, not empirical data” and called the climate change models “an expression of opinion”, a claim that was boosted by a recent headline proclaiming: Arctic sea ice regained a third of its volume in 2013. Other naysayers argue that the polar bear conservation plans are flawed and simply an attempt to drive more funding to government programs – another surprisingly plausible claim. So, who is right? Even if we look at a few hundred years of data, that data still pales in contrast to geologic time – which is measured in millions of years. Maybe polar bears have survived arctic warming (and arctic cooling) in the past. Perhaps they could adapt to life as land-predators, if that land were not already occupied by humans who are building settlements and drilling for oil. Either way, the outlook for polar bears is pretty grim.