An Arctic Encounter


Churchill, Manitoba sits on the Western shore of the Hudson Bay, just a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. It lies at the edge of the boreal forest and the open tundra, where the predominant tree is the black spruce. When I visited there in July 1997, I imagined that these evergreens should have looked like giant Christmas trees. Instead, they were fully branched at the bottom, but only up to about six or eight feet. Above that, they had no branches on one side. I was told this was because, during the severe winters, the snow line protects the foliage on the lower part of the tree, while the branches that are exposed to the elements are scoured off by the wind-driven snow. Anything that lived in this environment had to be hardy indeed.

I was there as part of a fact-finding mission for the Toledo Zoo’s new Arctic exhibit. My mission was to study polar bears and their habitat, which meant observing the landscape and animals like the Arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, greater yellowlegs. A bonus was the opportunity to follow a pod of Beluga whales in a small boat and listen to their communications through a hydrophone. A torment was enduring swarms of mosquitoes so thick that we were forced to wear netted head-covers.

The research trip was considered a necessity because the stated goal for the exhibit, according to my notes, was “To set a new standard in the captive management of Polar Bears and other Arctic animals”. This was to be my last project for the Toledo Zoo. I wanted to get it right.

Shortly after the initial planning began in 1995, we established a written purpose of the exhibit and presented it to the designers. We decided that the overall interpretive message for our visitors was to be that the exhibit was designed for the animals. They would see a physical environment and a husbandry regime that aggressively promoted the physical and psychological well-being of the animals,

After all the research, a plan began to develop. We had concerns over stereotypic animal behavior. We talked about the sizes of both pool and land space. We debated fences, water quality, and animal holding areas. We knew we wanted the bears and the seals visually linked. And we knew we had to stick to our original purpose of promoting the well-being of the animals, while providing a quality viewing experience for our guests.

The planning process was extensive, beginning in December 1996 and continuing until construction began in early 1998. It included not only our expedition to the Northern Canada but also visits to similar facilities at zoos in Indianapolis, North Carolina, SeaWorld Orlando, and San Diego.

We adopted a team approach that included multiple departments, including mammals, birds, aquarium, exhibits, graphics, education, horticulture, and maintenance. Working with this design team of diverse professionals was one of the most satisfying periods of my career. Ideas flowed like water from a spring with a construction manager providing an occasional reality check. Our number one priority from first meeting was to address the needs of the animals as completely as available technology would allow. We wanted multiple substrates and land-forms, complex pools with irregular walls and depths, chilled water, extensive holding areas, on-site veterinary facilities, flexible facilities, and creature comforts like shade and cooled areas. For the public, we wanted to be dramatic, innovative, and entertaining. And, finally, we wanted the educational messaging to be absorbed as a natural result of the whole experience and not through rows of wordy signs. The interpretive department wanted to surprise, amaze and educate our visitors.

I believe we achieved our goals and now, nearly twenty years later, I believe the Toledo Zoo’s Arctic Encounter is more relevant than ever, as I explained in my 2015 blog Polar Bears on Ice.

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?

When I visited Churchill, Manitoba, I observed first hand, the fragile wild habitat in which they live. I have also had years of experience with captive polar bears. 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.

But even as reports are warning that climate change threatens polar bear populations across the world, some experts insist they are doing just fine. One expert even told a Canadian television audience that most populations of polar bears appear to be as abundant and as productive as ever. 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”. 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 wild polar bears is grim.

That is why humane captive environments are a necessity today, more than ever. By the time Toledo’s Arctic Encounter opened in early 2000, I believe we achieved our goals. The polar bears had nearly four thousand square feet of quality land space and a ninety-thousand-gallon chilled salt-water pool. They had an air-conditioned cave in which to retreat in hot weather and a “blow-hole” area that had small holes in the floor of their exhibit allowing them to smell the seals from next door that swam underneath. By now, other zoos may have exceeded what we accomplished in Toledo, but there can be little doubt that the team of professionals at The Toledo Zoo achieved their goal of setting a new standard in the captive management of Polar Bears.

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