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St. Louis Zoo & Polar Bears International are Spearheading an Effort to Bring Arctic Polar Bears to US Facilities

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul discusses some zoo-related news concerning the future of polar bears in zoos in the lower 48–a week after the world celebrated International Polar Bear Day (February 27th). Seven or so AZA-accredited zoos are poised to either replace expired polar bears or exhibit them for the first time. About 45 AZA facilities...

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul discusses some zoo-related news concerning the future of polar bears in zoos in the lower 48–a week after the world celebrated International Polar Bear Day (February 27th).

Photo by Jordan Schaul

Seven or so AZA-accredited zoos are poised to either replace expired polar bears or exhibit them for the first time. About 45 AZA facilities currently house polar bears.

Polar bears are not readily available. Although there is a paucity of captive born polar bears, persistent habitat degradation (e.g., receding sea ice) will likely lead to an increase in orphaned cubs and starving adult bears that could be saved through placement in a zoo or aquarium.

Polar bears not only draw huge crowds for zoos, as a flagship species they serve to raise awareness concerning habitat loss and other environmental factors that influence the survival of Arctic fauna and the health of the Arctic ecosystem.

Legislation currently places restrictions on importing polar bears for AZA zoos seeking to recruit new individuals into the captive pool for propagation and conservation research purposes.

Due to an increased loss of sea ice, polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act by the USF&WS in 2008. This listing along with provisions set forth by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, precludes American zoos from importing wild bears.

Obtaining permission to house a polar bear at an AZA-accredited institution is no small feat even when zoos seek animals from other institutions. Interested AZA member institutions are required to comply with all relevant local, state, and federal wildlife laws and regulations, and must meet AZA accreditation standards that exceed those regulatory standards dictated by local, state, and federal law.  The standards pertain to a host of parameters from ambient temperature, and light to water quality and space requirements.

Saint Louis Zoo CEO/President and AZA Chair Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, Polar Bears International CEO Robert Buchanan, and Canadian diplomats met last Wednesday–International Polar Bear Day in Washington D.C. with Congress and their staffers to essentially convey the plight of the polar bear and the potential for zoological facilities to help in conservation efforts for a species on the brink of crisis.

Specifically, they were in Washington D.C. seeking permission to relocate polar bears to zoos in the Lower 48.  “The crisis is imminent,”  said Robert Buchanan. “I wanted them to understand just how dire the situation is for the polar bear.  The number of days without ice continues to increase and scientists agree that we are likely to see more abandoned/orphaned cubs and starving adult/sub-adult polar bears in the coming year as a consequence.”

As a result of this environmental crisis it is predicted that reports of compromised bears will likely come from various parts of their range. The crisis may be most immediate and most visible in the Western Hudson Bay population in Manitoba, Canada.  Buchanan went on to say that “While Canadian facilities will likely be able to handle such bears initially, capacity limitations would soon be exceeded. We need to recognize how important all North American zoos are in combating this problem.  Zoos have emerged as conservation centers. They are no longer just places for entertainment and they will most undoubtedly play a role for polar bear conservation.”

Association of Zoo and Aquarium members and members of other zoo associations around the world have adopted the Polar Bear Protection Act standards.  This legislation was originally driven under the leadership of the current Canadian Ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer.

Currently, many of those zoos already holding polar bears serve as Arctic Ambassadors. These centers not only care for the captive population of polar bears in North America, but they serve in many ways as satellite education facilities for Polar Bears International–disseminating information about polar bears and informing people how to conserve them. These Arctic Ambassadors also teach visitors more generally about issues that impact Arctic ecosystem health and the influences of climate change on the entire globe–something that affects all life forms, humans included.

Since zoos reach more people than all professional sporting events combined, these facilities are excellent conduits for conservation organizations. In their capacity as conservation education facilities, zoos serve to relay the messages of various conservation interest groups along with sponsoring and conducting their own conservation research. Polar Bears International has capitalized on such opportunities to work with zoos in getting the message out to the masses. They realize that time is running out for the polar bear and they want to share this concern with the general public. Partnerships with zoos like the St. Louis Zoo allow them to quickly and effectively spread the word while encouraging people to change behavior for the benefit of our global environment.

The St. Louis Zoo may open Polar Bear Point–a state-of the-art exhibit–as soon as 2015. The enclosure will accommodate three adult bears and a single offspring. Enrichment for the bears will include a simulated ice jam; a walk-through viewing cave will serve as “enrichment” for the patrons–allowing them to view the bears up close.  Considered to be one of the top five zoos in North America, the Saint Louis Zoo is also home to the highly regarded WildCare Institute, which takes a holistic approach to troubled ecosystems by addressing three key ingredients in conservation success: wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife.

Things have changed a lot in recent years regarding polar bear exhibition. When I was a bear keeper the standards for keeping polar bears had not changed much since the bears were first exhibited in US zoos.  Today, the state-of-the art facilities that house polar bears do an amazing job of immersing people into the “natural” environment of the bears through marine water, simulated ice floes and other formations that not only visually replicate nature, but provide environmental enrichment for the bears.

Above is a photo of a captive born male polar bear that I cared for as a zoo keeper. Now on breeding loan at the Cincinnati Zoo, “Little One” was not only given an opportunity to pass his genes on to future generations of polar bears, but he was offered a state-of-the art enclosure to spend the remainder of his life in and two female co-inhabitants to interact with.

Back in Missouri, administrative staff at the St. Louis Zoo also made themselves available to the public on International Polar Bear Day to answer questions about the dire state of polar bears in the wild and how we can all help. “We need to realize that all living things and ecosystems are interdependent and that ice is a necessity for polar bear survival,” says Saint Louis Zoo Curator of Carnivores Steve Bircher. “Reducing our carbon footprint by cutting our energy use can slow and reverse climate change, which causes sea ice to melt. Polar bears rely on the sea ice to hunt their prey. By taking part in this initiative we can all show our commitment to a healthier planet and to saving these iconic animals.”

In reference to the implications of generating electricity and greenhouse gas emissions, Louise Bradshaw, Director of Education said, “While this situation is troubling, it is a great opportunity to harness the love we all have for polar bears and come together to make a big difference for the bears.” Also in reference to International Polar Bear Day, Bradshaw said, “By being cooler on Feb. 27, we are doing our part as communities in St. Louis and around the world to help solve this global problem.”

In addition, the Zoo and the Academy of Science of St. Louis are sponsoring a lecture on the plight of the endangered polar bear by PBI Senior Scientist Dr. Steven C. Amstrup on Tuesday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m. in The Living World. Admission is free.

See my 2010 interview with Steve Amstrup.

Photo of Steven Amstrup by Mike Lockhart

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: