THE proposed International Polar Bear Conservation Centre that recently broke ground at the Assiniboine Park Zoo will, if it unfolds as planned, do a profound disservice to the legacy of Debby, the recently departed polar bear at the zoo who was adored by generations of Winnipeggers. She was an orphaned cub from the Russian Arctic, "rescued" from certain death when her mother died.
The plan is to capture Manitoba polar bears from the wild, keep some of them for display at the Assiniboine Park Zoo and export the rest to zoos outside of Manitoba. The existing bear enclosure at the zoo is being converted into a "transition centre" for the wild bears destined for other zoos.
It is at the "transition centre" that the bears will get their first taste of captivity -- and learn to get used to it, something animal welfare scientists say is impossible. Captivity is where they will spend the rest of their lives.
Polar bears targeted for captivity include orphaned cubs, and possibly "problem" bears, for whom life in captivity will be the newest - and as it turns out cruellest - punishment ever meted out to problem bears by the government of Manitoba.
The word "conservation" in the proposed International Polar Bear Conservation Centre is a misnomer. There is no "conservation" value in capturing wild polar bears and putting them in zoos. Nor is there any known program for successfully rehabilitating orphaned or captive-born polar bears back into the wild.
As for educational value, the only substantive thing a polar bear in captivity teaches kids is that it's okay to ruin an animal's life for our viewing pleasure.
History has proven over and over again that exporting polar bears outside of Manitoba can have tragic consequences for the bears. Yet the export of polar bears to zoos outside of Manitoba is the cornerstone of the proposed polar bear centre.
As recently as the 1990s, it was common practice to export Manitoba polar bears to foreign zoos. Everything changed when accounts of Manitoba polar bears living in hellish conditions around the world began surfacing in the media.
At the time, three Manitoba bears were discovered in a Mexican circus - by a Winnipeg Free Press photographer who was on vacation at the time - that toured Mexico and Latin America in the sweltering heat, something a cold-weather species is not cut out for. The bears were originally exported from Manitoba to the Ruhr Zoo in Germany, a duly-accredited zoo, which then turned around and sold the bears to the Suarez Bros. Circus in Mexico a year later.
In the mid-1990s, a Manitoba polar bear observed at the Tapei Zoo in Taiwan was almost unrecognizable as a polar bear. The sweltering heat, combined with substandard care, left the animal bald over much of her body, revealing skin that was red with bloody sores.
It was these and other tragedies involving Manitoba polar bears living in foreign hellholes that prompted the government of Manitoba to halt the export of Manitoba polar bears. Now, with memories faded, and tourism opportunities beckoning, the export of Manitoba polar bears is poised to resume.
Limiting the export of Manitoba polar bears to "accredited" zoos, even if only in Canada, is not the answer because there is nothing stopping a recipient zoo from turning around and selling a Manitoba polar bear to an unscrupulous buyer anywhere else in the world. The fact is that once polar bears leave Manitoba, they are at the mercy of foreign jurisdictions, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. History is bound to repeat itself if we allow the export of polar bears outside our borders again, as is being proposed by the government of Manitoba.
Polar bears are the world's widest-ranging land animals, with home ranges measuring thousands of square kilometres in size. There is compelling reason to think that polar bears, like whales, are spectacularly unfit for lives in captivity, regardless of the size of the enclosure.
Observers of Debby will remember that she demonstrated a condition known as a "stereotypy," commonly exhibited by wild animals in captivity whose lives are so devoid of stimulation and meaning that they are literally driven crazy - so crazy that pacing, rocking and other abnormal behaviours become their only coping mechanisms.
Yes, we loved Debby. But did we really understand her? Can we fathom that, in a misguided attempt to save Debby's life, we unwittingly robbed her of one?
Debby, and other polar bears in captivity around the world, have demonstrated that there is indeed a fate worse than death.
There is a positive role for a new Assiniboine Park Zoo polar bear centre to play. Instead of populating it with polar bears captured from the wild, it could serve as a refuge for polar bears currently living in poor conditions in captivity around the world who need help.
If the government of Manitoba truly cares about the welfare of Manitoba's polar bears, it will leave them where they belong - in the wild.
John Youngman is a Winnipeg lawyer and past-president
of the Zoological Society of Manitoba.