As shrinking sea ice threatens polar bear habitats, making it harder for them to find food and reducing their population in the wild, some experts are suggesting that the species may need to be bred in captivity in order to preserve them in the future. The idea is controversial: experts point to the difficulty and expense of replicating the bears' natural habitat in a captive environment, and all those involved agree that the ideal solution to the problem would be reducing global emissions to reduce warming and restore the ice where the bears actually live.
On the other hand, some supporters of the scheme think making polar bears more visible to the general public might help promote the issue of global warming and convince more people to get behind the cause of lowering emissions. Robert Buchanan, president of advocacy group Polar Bears International, says "The only way at this time to save bears is to have people change their habits, and the way to do that is through zoos and aquariums. Polar bears are just ambassadors for their friends in the Arctic".
Some experts disagree with displaying polar bears in zoos under any circumstances. Zoocheck Canada, for instance, maintains that since the bears are the widest ranging terrestrial mammal on earth, they are uniquely adapted to survive in vast territories and cold weather conditions. Even the best captive conditions, therefore, cannot hope to replicate their natural environment, and therefore Zoocheck believes the animals should never be kept in zoos.
Canadian zoos don't house many polar bears at present: Nanook, who lived at Cochrane Zoo in Ontario, was euthanized at the age of 30 last March, and Assiniboine Zoo in Manitoba lost their bear Debbie at the age of 42 in 2008. The Toronto Zoo currently has three full-grown bears and one cub, the first ever to be born in captivity - although two of its siblings were killed by their mother when she rejected them.
There are very specific rules about keeping polar bears in zoos, and intentionally breeding the bears in captivity is generally not allowed, since it is not considered valid scientific research. Also, there are relatively few bears in captivity at the moment: the U.S. only has 64 bears in zoos, down from 200 in 1995.
Currently, a polar bear can only be brought from the wild into a zoo environment when it is found orphaned and will not survive in the wild. Canada is leading the way in transitioning these cubs to life in captivity at the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Manitoba. Those bears may then be moved to other accredited facilities - but at the moment, there are no polar bears at the IPBCC.
There is some political pressure in the U.S. to allow more zoos to display polar bears, with four House Democrats sending a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last October requesting changes to the rules. But at present, the U.S. government's Fish and Wildlife division is focused on a plan to protect a critical habitat in Alaska, and Larry Bell, a spokesman there, said captive breeding is off the table: "Right now, it's not something we're considering".
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