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.
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
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
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
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.
Youngman who is a Winnipeg lawyer and past-president of the Zoological Society