By Carla Cook, Director of Education
Editor's Note: This originally appeared in The Key.
On February 25, 2014 I received an
email that would forever change my life.
“Congratulations and welcome! We are very glad to have you join
our effort to save polar bears.”
This was actually happening! Polar
Bears International had accepted me as a member of the 2014 Climate
Alliance which meant I would be representing the Memphis Zoo and traveling to
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada – The Polar Bear Capital of the World. As excited
as I was to have been accepted into the alliance, there was no way to possibly
know at that moment what a profound effect this adventure would have on my life
and hopefully the lives of polar bears.
The 2014 Climate Alliance would
consist of twelve leaders in the field of zoo education and one general curator
who happen to be the only male in the bunch. As we say in the South – “Bless
his heart.” Members were from as far away as Denmark and Austria with the
majority of us coming from the United States and two from zoos in Canada. Though
we wouldn’t pack our bags for months, we immediately began on-line training and
activities that would make sure that we all had a solid background in polar
bear science as well as the effects that climate change is having on these
The Churchill polar bears are
members of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population and are the most
studied of the 19 different populations of polar bears in the wild. Experts say
that since 1987 the number of bears in this particular population has decreased
by 15-20%. They estimate that there are now around 900 polar bears in Western
Hudson Bay. These bears rely on sea ice to be able to hunt the seals that they
eat during the winter and spring. When summer arrives their sea ice melts, and
the bears are forced onto land. For approximately four months they stay there
surviving on their fat reserves until the ice freezes again and makes hunting
possible. Pregnant polar bear moms stay on land even longer coming off the ice for
eight months to give birth and care for their cubs.
On October 5th it was finally time
for me to begin my actual journey. My group gathered in Winnipeg, and from
there we flew to Churchill. I felt like a child on Christmas morning. The
anticipation was overwhelming. Would I get to actually see a polar bear in the
wild? Would the aurora borealis magically appear in the night sky? These questions and what seemed like hundreds
of others swirled through my brain. I was not to be disappointed.
As our small plane got closer to
Churchill I was amazed. The tundra that I could see from the tiny window was
not at all what I had expected. Though it had snowed earlier that morning, the
ground was too warm for the snow to stick, so the tundra was brown and wet
rather than white with snow. It would still be several weeks before the polar
bears would match the landscape.
Upon landing in Churchill our fantastic
Polar Bears International hosts met us with open arms and, thankfully, warm Canada
Goose coats to borrow for the week. Our first stop would be Hudson Bay Beach
where I had another unexpected experience. As we stepped onto the beach I was
overwhelmed with the salty smell of the ocean and the crash of the waves, but
the smell and the sound were in complete contradiction to the feeling of bitter
cold and wind. It just did not seem right to be on the beach in a huge blue
parka. Also in contradiction to the thought of being on a beach was the Polar
Bear Alert sign warning us that polar bears could be there with us and giving
us a phone number to call should we see one.
After posing for our Ambassador
Bio photos that would be posted on the PBI website and soaking in the beauty of
the beach, we were ready to see more. Soon enough we arrived at Frontiers North
Adventures’ Tundra Buggy for our first trek onto the tundra. Because the land
was once used as military training ground there is an existing trail system.
All buggies are restricted to travel only on the trails and do not harm the
surrounding tundra. As fate would have it we did not have to wait long before
our driver stopped the buggy, looked through his binoculars and announced that
we were approaching our first bears. I
have visited polar bears in zoos my entire life. For the last seventeen years I
have spent most of my waking hours working at the Memphis Zoo. You might think
that seeing exotic animals on an almost daily basis would somewhat diminish the
excitement of seeing them in their natural environment. You would be wrong.
As we approached our first bears
it was as if time stopped. I didn’t know whether to shriek or cry. Not really
knowing the members of my team yet, I held in the shriek. I can’t say the same
for the tears. There in front of me were two polar bears snuggling together in
the cold. We had been warned that seeing polar bears would not be guaranteed. I
had likened this to a warning of not spotting an Elvis look-a-like during Elvis
Week in Memphis. I’m not going to promise that you will see a version of The
King, but if you don’t it would only be because you kept your eyes closed all
Not only did we see those two
bears that afternoon, but we would also go on to see a six more bears that day,
along with several other arctic creatures including ptarmigans and snow
buntings. Later that evening nature interrupted our after dinner work session
with yet another surprise – the aurora borealis. We all ran out onto the
balcony of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to watch as green and pink
waves shimmered in the night sky. They seemed to be dancing to a soundtrack
that only they could hear, and I could not believe how blessed I was to be in
this wonderful place. Its beauty combined with its harshness in only a way that
nature could choreograph.
Though the environment in which
polar bears live is harsh, the eco-system is incredibly delicate. Small climate
changes have huge impacts, and with each slight increase in global temperature their
habitat literally melts away. Since the 1970’s the sea ice in this area has
begun melting about three weeks earlier than in years past. Each of those weeks
translates to a difference in body weight of approximately 22 lbs for a bear.
Add that to the three or so weeks longer it is now taking for the sea ice to
freeze, and your result equals bears with poorer body condition, bears that are
hungrier and bears that are facing even more challenges to survive and be able
to care for their cubs. All of this makes sustaining a stable population
difficult if not impossible. Scientists know that humans are partly to blame
for the struggles the bears are facing.
The polar bears near Churchill
often wander into town looking for food. Manitoba Conservation does an amazing
job keeping the townspeople and the polar bears safe through The Polar Bear
Alert Program which includes the use of their Polar Bear Holding Facility – a
polar bear hotel of sorts. If a polar bear is spotted near or in Churchill the
alert team is called into action. If possible, the bear is hazed away with loud
noises. If that doesn’t work or if the
bear is near humans, the alert rangers use seal meat to entice him into a trap
for his trip to the holding facility. He will stay there for 30 days until he
is relocated far into the tundra - hopefully after learning his lesson that
Churchill is not a polar bear food source.
I must admit that I enjoyed
sending messages back home saying that I had been to an actual polar bear hotel.
Though we did not go inside the facility, at least one of the fourteen bears in
residence that day was banging around and eagerly letting us know that he was
there. I’m not at all embarrassed to admit that upon seeing the actual traps I
was the first to suggest that we try them out ourselves. How many people do you
know that can say that they have been in a bear trap?
The Town of Churchill has much
more to offer than just a bear holding facility. We were lucky enough to meet
many Churchillians eager to share the history of this remarkable place that
they call home. We had an outdoor history lesson at Cape Merry and indoor
lessons at Parks Canada and the Eskimo Museum. Friends of Krista Wright, the
executive director of PBI, even invited us to their cottage for a social hour.
PBI staff treated us to authentic Canadian food including bannock, Saskatoon
jam, and moose sausage. The good folks
at Frontiers North Adventures donated not only the time that we spent in the
Tundra Buggy, but also two incredible nights out on the tundra in their Tundra
Buggy Lodge. They did this so we would have the “mountain top experience” of
seeing polar bears. They already knew that once we saw the bears, we would be
compelled to go home, spread the conservation message, and implement the CO2
reduction projects necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a
future for polar bears.
It was during our days and nights
at the Tundra Buggy Lodge that I had my most impactful moments of the trip. An
arctic fox pranced up to the lodge one night to see what we were doing. A snowy
owl sat long enough for us to snap her photo before she gracefully spread her wings
and flew away. An arctic hare hunkered down and posed with her beautiful white
fur and little black tips of color on her ears. We even had the unexpected joy
of getting to touch our feet to the tundra. The ground felt somewhat bouncy,
and we played like children at recess. All of this was incredible, but they all
paled in comparison to what was in store.
As we slowly made our way through
the trails one afternoon we came upon a mother and her cubs. We inched further
stopping less than 50 feet from this precious sight. This sweet momma did not
seem bothered by our presence – probably due to the fact that her cubs
continued to rest and only occasionally peeked at us. I witnessed beauty beyond
my imagination that day. Out on the tundra and completely unprotected from the
wind and cold this magnificent mom and her two cubs seemed to be at peace. It
was later that night during our evening session that bitter cold reality hit.
As we all commented about the wonder of the experience, Krista reminded us that
as we sat in this lodge with a warm heater and the warmth of the new
friendships that had formed, that mom and cubs were out in the snow and sleet.
Not only that but they were at least six weeks away from being able to eat. The
likelihood of both of those cubs becoming adults was not good. Humans,
including those of us in the lodge that night, had made poor decisions that
have changed their climate too rapidly. We
would need to help maintain the polar bear population of Western Hudson Bay for
future generations by taking the message of climate change and the polar bears
to our communities. Just as the bears had inspired change in us, we had to
inspire change in others and provide them with opportunities to make
So how exactly had we gotten into
this mess? Climate consists of weather patterns that are averaged over many
years. There are natural increases and decreases in our planet’s temperatures
and natural times of wet and dry. The key is that in the past these changes
have occurred at a pace that allowed the bears and other animals to adjust. These
adjustments take place over hundreds of years as the animals who have adapted
survive and reproduce. However, since the Industrial Revolution humans have
contributed significantly to climate change by our burning of fossil fuels such
as coal, natural gas and oil. These fuels have added more and more carbon
dioxide and other heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere. Think of these added
gases as an extra blanket around the earth. Energy enters our atmosphere from
the sun. Some of the energy heats the earth while the rest bounces back to the
sun. This “blanket” that we have created through our carbon emissions is
trapping the heat and changing our climate. In essence, we have put what was
once a natural ebb and flow of energy on steroids, and humans and animals are
suffering the consequences.
As a person of faith I believe
that God has placed us on this planet, and it is our duty to care for His
precious gift. There are those who might try to convince us that climate change
isn’t real. Science tells us that they are wrong. The law of physics requires
that as the amount of heat trapping gasses rises, the earth will warm. Slowly
but surely many are realizing that this is not a political issue. One thing
that gives me hope is that our children seem to “get it”. They don’t see climate
change through the tinted lenses of politics. The vast majority of the millions
of children who visit zoos and take part in the educational programs offered there
understand that we need to do what we can to help our planet and the animals
who call it home.
Far too soon my time in Churchill
ended, and it began to sink in that my life was forever changed. It’s not that I
just want to do what I can to help the polar bears; after looking them in the
eye I have to. It’s not enough to just tell people about my trip and
show them beautiful photos. The bears deserve more. Each of the members of the
2014 Climate Alliance traveled home with plans and resources to affect behavior
change. We will forever be bonded to one
another and to the bears from this experience. None of us can do this alone,
but all of us can do this together. My first change for the bears was to make
the switch to green
energy through Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW). By adding only $24 per
month to my bill I completely offset all of my home’s energy use. To put this
into perspective, according to MLGW in the past year I have conserved the same
amount of energy as recycling 45,966 aluminum cans.
2015 brought yet another surprise
when PBI asked me to join the 2015 Climate Alliance as a facilitator. It was a
true honor to join fourteen zookeepers and three fellow facilitators in
Churchill in October. In the coming months we will be reporting on the change
that this group inspires at their zoos and in their communities. Some have
plans to start no-idling campaigns similar to the one at our zoo while others
are focusing on switching to locally grown food for their animal collections.
Please visit PBI’s
Climate Alliance blog for recaps of our time together and periodic updates
on their progress.
What change will you make to help
the polar bears? I urge you to join me in making a small change to help our
planet. Log onto the Memphis Zoo website to tell us what step you will take for the
bears. Just think of what we can accomplish together.