Inupiaq Alaskan James Tazruk didn’t mean to orphan a polar bear cub when he killed its mother on Alaska’s Chukchi Sea coast in March 2013. He didn’t even know he’d done so until he snowmobiled up to the dead bear, rolled it over, and realized it was a nursing female. Thinking to himself, “Got a cub somewhere,” he followed the female’s tracks back to its den 1,500 feet away.
There, he told the Anchorage Daily News, he saw the small snow-white cub, which he and his villagers later named Kali (pronounced “Cully”).
Polar bears are going to disappear off the face of the Earth if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
As a tribal subsistence hunter, Tazruk is allowed under federal law to hunt polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. And because the cub would have been unable to survive on its own, he could have chosen to shoot the cub, too.
Instead, when he saw the approximately four-month-old cub cowering in its three-chambered den, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to take you home. Just don’t bite me.” Then he “scooped it in his arms like a puppy.”
On the snowmobile ride back to his village of Point Lay, above the Arctic Circle, Tazruk says he stopped at a cabin, grabbed a pair of ski pants, and wrapped the young bear in them. When he got home, he took Kali to the village police station. Kali spent the night in a big, white dog crate, and, the next day, was flown to Barrow and later to the zoo in Anchorage, where he remained until Wednesday, May 15, when he was transported again, via UPS cargo plane, to another zoo in Buffalo, New York.
Kali came to the Buffalo Zoo because another orphaned polar bear cub, Luna, lives there. Luna’s mother, Anana, failed to care for her, and officials said that raising orphaned cubs together is good because it helps keep them from becoming “too attracted to their human keepers.”
According to a story on Livescience.com, Randi Meyerson, coordinator of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan, said in a statement, “At the Buffalo Zoo, both cubs would benefit from each other’s company during this important period in their development. Peer-raising animals is generally preferred over human-rearing whenever possible.” But once this important period is over, the St. Louis Zoo—currently in the process of building a state of the art polar bear exhibit due to be completed in 2015—may be Kali’s final destination.
To find out if this was, in fact, the best-case scenario for Kali, TakePart talked to Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bear International, one of the world’s leading polar bear conservation groups.
TakePart: Why fly an abandoned polar bear cub thousands of miles only to put it in captivity?
Steven Amstrup: It comes down to a matter of alternatives. If a cub in the wild loses its mother, it’s going to die. Many critics think that it’s unfair to put an animal like a polar bear in a zoo. But it’s well documented that animals in zoos live longer, are typically healthy, have all their nutritional needs met, and have access to medical care unavailable to those in the wild. An animal like Kali is guaranteed a good life promised by all of these aspects of zoo animal care. Additionally, Kali will become an ambassador for the wild polar bears that currently are losing their sea ice home to climate warming. Polar bears can catch their food only from the sea ice and that vital habitat literally melts as temperatures rise. So providing a good home for this orphan and an opportunity to let him speak for the problems faced by his wild kin seems far better than simply letting him starve out on the sea ice or shooting him.
What’s your response to people who say they can “tell” bears are unhappy in zoos?
First, I have to say that I know of many bears who seem quite contented in zoos. And I am not sure what symptoms these people use to “tell” a bear is not happy. Bears and other large carnivores sometimes develop what scientists call a stereotypical behavior in captivity. They may pace back and forth or swim in a repetitive pattern, making people worry because it looks unusual. Existing studies of the topic have failed to elucidate all the causes or the possible effects of such behavior. But despite absence of a complete understanding, stereotypic behaviors are much less common now than they used to be. Enrichment activities and better animal care have dramatically reduced such behaviors from modern zoos. And, despite what may be sometimes distracting behavior, these animals can live long healthy lives in zoos. To me, a long and healthy life is more compelling evidence of a bear’s welfare than someone’s subjective assessment that the bear seems sad.
Okay, but why can’t the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just keep Kali in captivity for a while and then reintroduce him back into the wild?
If you get an orphaned bear at a very young age, they haven’t learned all of their life skills yet. Mother polar bears keep cubs two and a half years before weaning them. That extended period of parental care is because they have to teach their young things like seal hunting and how to navigate sea ice. If a bear hasn’t learned these things in its formative years, it would be very difficult to pick them later in life-after an extended period in captivity. So, a re-introduced polar bear is unlikely to know how to make a living on the sea ice. Additionally, and for polar bears in particular, their habitat is rapidly disappearing. So if you take a bear that is orphaned and try to place it in a locale that is already being challenged by climate change, you’re facing that bear with a losing battle. On the other hand, if you took that same bear and tried to introduce it to a place where habitat is not yet in jeopardy, you’re probably placing it in habitat that is already full of other polar bears as competition. Either way, reintroducing an orphaned cub is unlikely to be successful and the most probable fate would be starvation.
Earlier this morning I spoke with Susan Gallagher at the St. Louis Zoo, who declined to offer any statement about their possible acquisition of Kali. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why that will be the zoo he is transferred to next. In other words, why will the St. Louis Zoo be the best place for a polar bear, over all other zoos in the U.S.?
Well, I would not want to comment on the relative merits of one zoo over another. But I can tell you that the new St. Louis exhibit will have one of the most advanced polar bear facilities in the country when it’s completed in 2015. This “state of the art” exhibit will make it possible for Kali to have the best possible animal care. The St. Louis Zoo also is a leading research institution and the people there are skilled in the challenges of managing small populations. It’s also a brand-new polar bear exhibit with, currently, no polar bears. But there are lots of really good zoos out there and many quality polar bear exhibits. Ultimately the decision of where to place an orphan like Kali rests with the USFWS, the Taxanomic Advisory Group that operates across zoos, and the long-term polar bear species survival plan. Together, many professionals work hard to keep track of the lineage of bears in captivity, as well as the zoo environments in which bears are being kept and cared for.
It’s also a matter of practicality. Right now, there is more space for polar bears in zoos than there are polar bears. When an orphan or other at-risk bear is available, where to place it depends on who has and doesn’t have bears, and their position in the line. Ultimately, what you need to know is that no polar bear is going to be placed in a low-quality zoo. And it is important to remember that polar bears, more than anything else, are the best ambassadors for their species. Polar bears are going to disappear off the face of the Earth if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Okay, last question. What are the odds, given their ages and the fact that they are getting to know one another, that Kali and Luna will one day breed.
Given these are both young bears, it is possible they may one day be put together in hopes they might breed. However, the final decision will be made after analysis of which part of the Arctic each bear represents, and how beneficial mixing their genes might be to the population of polar bears in zoos and ultimately to the remaining populations in the wild. Importantly, we must keep in mind that polar bears don’t reach sexual maturity until they are several years old (usually five for females and at least three or four for males), so we still have some time to think about that question.