From the CBC archives: Researcher coats polar bears in oil for science
Thirty-five years ago this month, a Norwegian researcher was given permission to coat three Manitoba polar bears in crude oil in a wind tunnel to, you know, see what would happen – all in the name of science.
In February of 1980, Manitoba’s Natural Resources minister granted Nils Øritsland, a zoophysiology scientist from the University of Oslo, a permit to carry out an experiment meant to simulate the impact of an oil spill in the Arctic.
Øritsland, the governments of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories and other partners were interested in knowing whether polar bears (Ursus maritimus) would be able to regulate their body heat and cope with varying levels of exposure to crude were a spill to take place in their habitat.
The study was designed such that three polar bears would be covered with different amounts of oil, and observed for a time before being released back into the wild. The thinking was the findings would advance our scientific understanding of how large marine mammals like U. maritimus rebound in the wild, as well make containment teams better equipped to deal with oil spill fallout.
The Manitoba government issued a press release ahead of the project with the sub-headline "Wildlife experts will ensure 'humane' study."
The study was ultimately a bust. Two of the bears died and one became very ill. The question of "humanity" seemed a forgone conclusions to many critics before a single drop of oil was ever dripped on those snow-white hides.
Ørtisland didn't appear elated by the study findings when CBC interviewed him at that time. But he didn't concede in the interview that it was an outright failure either.
"It would seem to me the only thing it’s proved is that bears cannot ingest varying amounts of crude oil and survive,” said Ørtisland. "Who’s to say whether the loss of three polar bears to prove this point is worth while.”
It seems unusually cruel and senseless by today's animal welfare standards and it wasn't accepted en masse in 1980. It attracted the ire of animal rights advocates like Georges R Dupras, who wrote a book that addressed the study.
Take an uncomfortable stroll down memory lane and watch CBC's coverage (above) of the 1980 study. Read the press release from the Manitoba government put out ahead of the study (below).