Milwaukee County Zoo
A Trip to Remember
“Take a look back. Life as you know it will never be the same again.” Those are the words I remember Robert Buchanan telling me as I boarded the plane to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada back in October of 2009. As Polar Bears International’s (PBI) president at the time, Robert’s words came across as very sincere and convincing. Even still, I had a hard time believing that spending less than a week anywhere could really be all that life changing. Little did I know, that little trip wound up being one of the most transformative experiences I have ever had.
As a relatively new hire at the Milwaukee County Zoo, I was extremely excited to have been selected to attend PBI’s first ever “Zookeeper Leadership Camp.” This was a workshop lead by experts in the field that was designed to teach animal keepers from all over the world how to inspire and empower people in their local communities to help save polar bears in the wild. PBI staff knew we would be a demographic that would not only be passionate about conservation issues, but that we also had a unique platform at our zoos to reach out to members of the public.
Upon arrival in Churchill, also known as “the polar bear capital of the world,” we were all in for a bit of a culture shock. Even though all twenty zookeepers in attendance were from all over the United States, Canada, and Europe, the tiny town on the edge of the Tundra was a new experience for us all. At the time, the population of Churchill was only 923 and is so remote that no roads lead in or out of town. In fact, the only two ways to reach the area are via plane or train.
After taking a brief tour of the area, we headed out on a “Frontiers North Tundra Buggy” to our lodge that was stationed out on the tundra just outside of town. We spent our next five days out there, safely elevated high off of the ground to avoid coming face-to-face with one of the world’s most ferocious predators. It didn’t take long before we saw our first wild polar bear, a beautiful female that seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere. We saw four more bears over the next few days, both male and female. All were waiting patiently at the edge of the Hudson Bay for the ice to freeze.
Bears on the Brink
So, why do polar bears care so much about sea ice? The main reason is that they use it for a platform to hunt for their most prized prey, the ringed seal. One of their most common hunting methods is to sit and wait to ambush one of these pinnipeds when they come up for air through one of their many breathing holes they have created in the ice. Despite the fact that polar bears are excellent swimmers, the ringed seal is far faster under water and very difficult for the bears to catch this way. Without sea ice, polar bears would be unable to catch their prey and would very likely not be able to survive. Sea ice is also important for polar bears to reach maternal den sites, to use for locating mates, and for breeding.
Unfortunately, the sea ice that the bears depend upon for survival is melting due to climate change. As a population of polar bears that spends several months out of the year fasting on land, Churchill’s population is particularly vulnerable. If the sea ice they are so dependent upon forms too late or breaks up too early, the bears would miss crucial hunting opportunities that can lead to starvation. This is especially important for cubs that depend upon their mother’s fatty milk. Sadly, according to renowned polar bear researcher Ian Sterling, there has been a 22 percent decline in the Churchill polar bear population since 1987 (Stirling, I., & Parkinson, C.L. 268).
A Call to Action
After spending nearly a week in Churchill attending lectures and workshops at PBI’s “Zookeeper Leadership Camp,” we all had mixed emotions. We all felt inspired by the beautiful bears we saw but also despair brought on by learning the magnitude of the challenges they were facing. We all knew we needed to do something, but what exactly? We decided that we needed a specific “call to action” of sorts. Something that we could all be a part of together even though thousands of miles would separate us once we got back to our home institutions. So, we all sat down together one night on the lodge and decided to create the program “Acres for the Atmosphere” (AFTA). This program was designed to have a two-pronged approach. The first was to work on programs that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our local communities. The second was to organize tree-planting programs to help offset excess carbon dioxide emissions in our hometowns.
I am happy to report that the program has been a huge success! Thousands of trees have been planted to date by zookeepers across the country and in Canada. At the Milwaukee County Zoo alone, we have planted over 1500 trees on Zoo grounds over the course of 4 years with the help of staff, docents, and members of the public during our annual “Party for the Planet” event. Others involved in AFTA have done everything from creating life-sized polar bears out of disposable plastic shopping bags in order to discourage their use to organizing flash mobs to get the conservation message out. Others have coordinated educational bike rides, designated premium parking spaces for “green” vehicles in their organizations’ parking lots, and have created composting programs just to name a few! These efforts have no doubt added up to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and the melting of the sea ice.
A Chance of a Lifetime…Again!
I have been lucky enough to get a second (and third!) chance to return to Churchill. I went back in October 2013 as an “In-Field Ambassador” for PBI and will also be going there again for the same program in October 2014. My role is to educate the tourists aboard the “tundra buggies” about the plight of the polar bear and to inspire them to take action when they get home from their vacation. I found this to be an incredible experience that has renewed my resolve to help save “the great white bear” from extinction.
Stirling, I., & Parkinson, C.L. (2006). Possible Effects of Climate Warming on Selected Populations of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic, 59(3), 268.