How disappointing that upon the unveiling of the Assiniboine Park Zoo's Journey to Churchill exhibit, the only criticism gaining media attention has been related to the cost of admission. Our city's zoo and many of our citizens seem to have no qualms about the cost to the animals: decades of captivity for the purpose of our recreation.
Polar bears are among the worst possible candidates for life in zoos. Their natural living conditions are impossible to replicate, no matter how many millions are spent to do so. The inability of both wild-caught and captive-born specimens to perform natural behaviours in captivity predispose them to develop aberrant behaviour patterns called stereotypies. Stereotypies are abnormal actions such as repetitive pacing, swaying and compulsive swimming are sometimes so severe that zoos must medicate polar bears with anti-anxiety drugs such as Prozac. It stands to reason that when you reduce an animal's natural range from 50,000 square kilometres or more to a mere 2,300 square metres per bear as we have done in Winnipeg, they might go a little stir-crazy. Equally distressing is the adverse effect life in confinement has on infant mortality, which makes the deaths of five captive-born cubs at the Toronto Zoo last year not at all surprising.
Imagine a zoo bear's anxiety, forced to live with a roommate. Polar bears are loners by nature, and instinctively make efforts to avoid prolonged proximity to one another. Imagine living next door to an enclosure housing seals, a polar bear's main food source in the wild, which they'll only ever smell, but never taste. Think of how the seals must feel, sensing four polar bears in the adjacent swimming pool. The zoo calls this "stimulating" to the animals; I can think of several adjectives for it, but "stimulating" is a gross understatement.
The recent underground escape attempt by the zoo's wolf pack into the polar bear enclosure should give you an idea about how much the animals are enjoying their state-of-the-art environs.
The new exhibit purports to be educational, but research shows next to no significant learning takes place in zoos. Visitors attend for an afternoon, spending minutes watching even the "big draw" attractions before moving on to the next spectacle. Few leave a zoo sufficiently inspired to make any significant and permanent change in their lives in the interest of wildlife preservation.
The zoo maintains their three wild-born bears would have starved or been shot had they not taken them in. Sad though it may sound, I suggest the humane euthanasia of orphaned cubs, or bears that have attacked people, is the best of a limited number of unpleasant options. A shortened life in the wild, ended quickly and painlessly, is far preferable to one in which an animal's normal behaviour, such as hunting, foraging and roaming, become distant memories. Our zoo has room for a finite number of polar bears and once capacity is reached, cubs orphaned in the wild will continue to be dealt with as they've always been by Manitoba Conservation, for the safety of people and out of compassion for the bears. We can't save them all, and the answer is neither stockpiling every troubled wild bear, nor sending them to live with the zoo's International Polar Bear Conservation Center partners in such warm climates as San Diego, North Carolina and Orlando. Among the Assiniboine Park Zoo's IPBCC allies is SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, whose atrocious animal-welfare track record was well-documented in the disturbing 2013 film, Blackfish; misguidedly, our zoo plans to work with SeaWorld "co-operatively to share best practices."
If we are genuinely concerned with the well-being of polar bears, efforts ought to be made to prevent the kinds of human-wildlife conflicts that result in young bears being sent to zoos. Wild bears should be discouraged from entering areas where people live through such strategies as diversionary feeding (leaving caged meat miles outside of communities), electric fencing and appropriate storage of materials that draw animals into town.
What can average citizens do? Incorporate wildlife conservation into school curricula, encourage children to watch the many high-quality documentaries about the species and choose environmentally sustainable options for your life and province. There are far more humane ways to become an advocate for species preservation and environmental stewardship than by staring at animals eking out an existence in captivity.
Polar bears are solitary, wide-ranging, carnivores that belong in the wild. If you want to learn about them, save up for a real journey to Churchill and discover them as they should be: free.
Jonas Watson is a companion animal veterinarian in Winnipeg who provides medical services to remote communities in northern Canada, including Churchill.