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Steps to Churchill… Steps to Change

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 magnificent creatures. 

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 week. 

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 eco-conscious choices. 

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. 

Posted by Zoo Info at 5:03 PM

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