Enclosed habitats can be good for animals: Polar bear expert

Dylan McCart, a conservation coordinator, says polar bear habitats provide a necessary space for scientists to research the endangered animals in a way they simply wouldn’t able to do in the wild.
Polar bears have about 15 acres of land to roam around at the Polar Bear Habitat, says Dylan McCart. (Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat)

Polar bear habitats provide a necessary space for scientists to research the endangered animals in a way they simply wouldn't able to do in the wild, says Dylan McCart, a conservation coordinator.

McCart has been working in zoos for four years, and currently works for the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, Ont.

While he doesn't endorse all zoos, McCart told Checkup that a proper facility can be a healthy place for animals to thrive and for the public to learn more about their plight.

Here is part of their conversation below: 

McCart says having polar bears in large enclosures allows him to get more information about the animals that he wouldn't be able to in the wild. (Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat )

Duncan McCue: What are your thoughts on zoos and aquariums?

I've been working in zoos for about four years now. I work in polar bear habitats out in Cochrane, Ont., where we have strictly focused on polar bears and we have a 15 acres for our three bears. We're heavily focused on research and education and are very passionate about it because I know that a lot of the research that we do can't really be done in the wild or with the polar bears. We're getting a lot of information that you can't get anywhere else, so it's very important that we have these animals that we can utilize.

A polar bears swims in a lake in Cochrane, Ontario. McCart says much of the research done on the animals are non-invasive (Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat)

I'm not familiar with the habitat. You said there's 15 acres. Can you describe the conditions that the polar bears are in?

We're about 250 kilometres south of James Bay, which has natural sub-populations of polar bears. We had the largest enclosures in the world for polar bears and that's 12.8 acres that encloses an eight acre lake — so very natural enclosures for our bears. We have one animal care staff per bear, so we have very high care for our bears. We're regularly inspected. We follow the CAZA standards, OSPCA as well.

All the research that we do with our bears is very non-invasive — a lot of the stuff bears don't even know they're in. They're taking pictures of the bears, doing behavioural research, tracking hormone levels through fecal, urine samples. A lot of the information that you can't get from wild bears because they are so wide ranging, so very important things that we can utilize these bears for, if we have them in human care.

Dylan McCart says observing polar bears can teach the public a lot about climate change and how it affects the animals. (Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat)

Polar bears obviously are the iconic species … I mean, they're the kind of thing that would draw visitors to a zoo, and there are polar bears in zoos around the world. Smaller zoos. Urban city zoos. What do you think of that compared to this larger enclosure that you have?

I can only speak for the Habitat because that's where I've been working, but I know a lot of places across North America and in Europe and Australia have a lot of initiatives to push for research, longitudinal studies, that like I said can't be done anywhere else. We work as a coalition to be able to get this information from different facilities, working together so we can help understand how [the bears] are acting in the wild and help them with major threats that they have to [face] — from climate change to anthropomorphic changes in the wild — that are leaving this species specifically very vulnerable again.

The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat is 250 kilometres south of James Bay, which has natural sub-populations of polar bears. (Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat)

But in an urban zoo setting, do you think that's proper that a polar bear should should be in that kind of setting?

Well it all depends on husbandry standards. A lot of facilities that are further south follow regular husbandry standards. They would be a lot smaller than we have. But a lot of these facilities are doing their best they can and putting in as much research as we can to utilize them for making sure that it's worth it. And a lot of these animals can't be put back in the wild. Doing any type of real rehabilitation or any animals that are born in captivity can't be back out into the wild. So there is really no alternative for these animals to go.

Dylan McCart, a conservation coordinator at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, says visitors enjoy seeing the polar bears and learning about them. (Cochrane Polar Bear Exhibit)

In the habitat where you work with polar bears, are people allowed to come and see them and what impact does that have?

Yeah, we're completely open to the public. We're about eight hours north of Toronto, so we're very remote. Like I said, we have to rely on research and education. We push for that as our major focus. But we allow the public to come in, so that we can educate them and see exactly what we do, and major threats that these bears face in the wild and we can share that message so that it's passed along.

Does seeing bears help people understand the impacts of climate change?

Absolutely. We have our discussions with guests that come in talking about those major threats. Some people will be crying because they've had such a great experience and we try and teach them as much as you can and, you know, simple changes they can have day-to-day to help these species in the Arctic or around the world that are affected by climate change. I think it goes the real long way to be able to utilize these animals in human care to be able to have that impact on people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This written segment was produced by Arman Aghbali.