(WHTM) — Polar bears are extremely well adapted to their hostile environment.
Under their translucent fur (it appears white because of a lack of pigment) and black skin (which helps them absorb UV light to stay warm) is a thick layer of fat that helps them stay warm and can be drawn on when hunting is bad.
Their ears and tails are small in comparison to other bears, which helps limit heat loss. Their wide paws allow them to walk on thin ice and help make them powerful swimmers when the ice breaks anyway. (They can swim for days at a time.)
Their primary diet is the seal, which has thick blubber layers, which make for an incredibly fatty diet. The polar bear’s ability to survive on this without developing heart disease may be one of their most amazing adaptations (Part of this adaptation is a liver that can store so much vitamin A that it would be toxic to humans.)
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Yes, polar bears are very well adapted to the environment that was. In the environment that is, they’re in a lot of trouble. Unregulated hunting thinned their ranks; thankfully there are international treaties that regulate hunting but doesn’t stop it.
Right now, climate change is the biggest threat. Northern ice caps are shrinking and thinning. The loss of ice to walk on makes it hard for bears to reach seals to hunt, and without enough food to get them through winter, bears are starving, and their numbers are crashing. (This is the condensed version-there are a lot of factors in play here, and right now the game is stacked against the bears.)
In 2008, the polar bear became the first vertebrate species to be listed as threatened because of predicted climate change under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In 1994 Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the endangered polar bear, was formed. They organized the first International Polar Bear Day in 2011, and it’s become an annual event.
It used to be if you visited a major zoo, it was very likely you’d be able to see a polar bear or two on display. Such is no longer the case.
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My original intent in writing this article was to provide a list of places within a reasonable driving range where you could see polar bears; instead, it’s a list of places that used to have them but don’t anymore.
The Philadelphia Zoo shut down its polar bear exhibit after they euthanized Goldilocks, the oldest polar bear in the United States, at age 37 in 2018.
The Baltimore Zoo announced their two Polar Bears were being relocated in 2021. Amelia Gray relocated to the Oregon Zoo in Portland, where she’ll be with her six-year-old half-sister. The Neva moved to the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In 1986 The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington sent their three polar bears to new homes in the Midwest. The main reason? The bears’ habitat in D.C. faced south and the summertime sun was “Just too hot,” according to officials.
In 2017 the Bronx Zoo had to euthanize their 26 -year-old polar bear, Tundra. Their website succinctly states “There are no longer any Polar Bears at the Central Park Zoo.”
The only location within a semi-reasonable travel distance that has polar bears is the Pittsburgh Zoo. Their polar bear is part of the Water’s Edge exhibit and has an air-conditioned cave and a chilled pool.
The air conditioning and pool might be a hint to you why polar bear exhibits are falling out of favor. Quite simply, it takes a lot of exhibition space and special conditions to exhibit a polar bear in a way that they don’t develop “stereotypical behaviors,” a scientific way of saying they can go a bit crazy from discomfort, lack of space, and sheer boredom.
Each bear requires a lot of personal space, a place to swim, and cold, all of which can be very expensive to provide.
There are also ethical concerns about taking threatened animals out of their habitat, and therefore out of the gene pool. Captive breeding of polar bears has had limited success, and even when cubs are born they can’t be returned to the wild, because they don’t learn how to survive.
So perhaps the best answer to the question of how to see polar bears is to turn on your TV set or go online, and watch a good nature documentary.
To visit the Polar Bears International site, click here.
To learn more than you ever wanted to know about taking care of polar bears, click here.