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Monday, 4 August 2008

Polar Bear Alert. STOP. Part One

At 41 years, 8 months, Debby, the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s famous Polar Bear, is showing signs of her advanced age and the prognosis of recovery from age-related medical problems is not good.
City of Winnipeg News Release, 31 July 2008


Churchill Manitoba
In other words, Debby the Polar Bear is dying.

Debby holds a special place in most Winnipegger’s hearts as generations of locals have been to see her. It will be a sad day when she goes but there is some comfort in the fact that she lived for double the life expectancy of a polar bear so she had a good run !

What I really consider disappointing is that we haven't done anything to ensure that we have a replacement for her.

Debby the Polar Bear

For decades it has been recognized that the way animals are housed in zoos, particularly special-needs animals like polar bears, had to change. As described in a 1991 article “A wild time at the zoo” in New Scientist Magazine:

Zoos, too, acknowledge (as some of them did not seem to in the past) that animals are sentient beings, capable of being unhappy; that they are not simple machines, with reflexes routinely triggered by standardised stimulations. For their personal welfare, as well as their conservational value, captive animals should be kept in ways that respect their psychology.

These changing opinions toward captive bears and a couple of high profile cases of mistreatment of Manitoba-born polar bears in Puerto Rico and Mexico led the province, a supplier of polar bears to zoos, to enact the Polar Bear Protection Act in 2003.

The act put restrictions on the export of polar bears and set guidelines for the enclosures in which they could be kept. Ironically, it meant that Manitoba's premiere zoo would not be able to house another polar bear once the already ancient Debby passed away.

Debby the Polar Bear

Prior to the act coming into effect, the Assiniboine Zoo had already recognized the need for a new enclosure. The Zoological Society of Manitoba states on their website that in 2000:

The Society and the Zoo begin work on the development of a new Master Plan Development Proposal for the Assiniboine Park Zoo. Initial proposals are developed for the redesign of the existing Polar Bear enclosure.

This drawing appeared in the May 2004 Assiniboine Park Framework Plan (an updated version, containing the same drawings, was released in 2006). The drawings for the “Assiniboine Zoo Master Plan, Entry Building and First Nations Walk, and Entry to Gateway to the Arctic, Arctic Research Station, and Discovery Center Renderings” earned Torre Design Consortium a 2006 Honor Award from the Gulf States Region of the Construction Specifications Institute.

So, what has happened in the past 8 years ?

The last time a new enclosure hit the news was in March 2008 when it was announced that a new group, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, headed by Hartley Richardson, would be put in charge of capital improvements to the Park. In that Free Press interview Richardson said he would …personally like to see … a radically improved zoo with a state-of-the-art polar-bear enclosure and an overall focus on Manitoba's ecological zones”.

Debby the Polar Bear

With the news of Debby’s fading released by the city in a news release on July 31, 2008 it would have been a good time to give an update on the enclosure issue but Dr. Robert Wrigley, Curator of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, would only say to The Sun that it is “one of the top priorities in the master plan of the new Assiniboine Park Conservancy”.

In other words, we haven't progressed too far in eight years.

We are, of course, not the only zoo in the world with polar bears. In fact, there are about 100 of them. In the last couple of years many North American zoos have spent in the region of $10 - $25m to build new polar bear facilities, often expanding their scope to include other tundra species as well.

I found this list at ZooBeat Forums and it includes: Pittsburgh Zoo (2006); Maryland Zoo; Rogers William Park Zoo - Rhode Island (eta 2010); Toronto Zoo’s “Tundra Exhibit” (eta 2009); Louisville Zoo ("Glacier Run"); Columbus Zoo (2008) and Cincinatti Zoo (2000). (See the link for more details and dollar figures).

For Manitoba, the "Polar Bear Capital of the World", the fact that in a very short time we will have NO polar bears at the zoo for a number of years is a bit mind boggling when you see the effort that other zoos have put into updating enclosures. Manitoba has an extra economic incentive as it's estimated that the "polar bear industry" in 2003 brought $23m to the Town of Churchill alone (don't mind the spin offs for Winnipeg itself).

Churchill Manitoba

This is another one of those long standing projects in the city that we've allowed to get knocked off the priorities perch. In the past year we've been able to pull $7m out of the hat for a hotel waterpark, pledged millions for a proposed Upper Fort Garry interpretive centre and are toying with a $200m - $400m massive stadium / neighbourhood revitalization project and each one putting the polar bear enclosure further back in line.

Debby the Polar Bear

I hope that we'll give our heads a bit of a shake and realize that while we spend our time and money chasing after the latest "shiny object" that there are existing projects and facilities around town that are becoming obsolete and need attention.

Polar Bear Alert. STOP.
Part One
Part Two
Part Three: Debby 1966 - 2008

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