A plan to save polar bears ... in zoos

One of the Philadelphia Zoo polar bears. (Philadelphia Zoo photo)

Zoo officials have always said that one of the benefits of zoos is that they serve as potential arks of genetic material in case populations in the wild should decline or even wink out.

That may be more the case now than ever. The Philadelphia Zoo, for instance, has been involved in a program to bring frogs back from the tropics and breed them at the zoo.

Now, a group of scientists, zoo officials and others is proposing to increase the number of polar bears in U.S. zoos so their genetic diversity can be maintained. 

"In a worst-case scenario, a remnant group of bears would survive in captivity," writes Juliet Eilperin in a story in Monday's Washington Post about the proposal.

She notes that the St. Louis Zoo recently a $20 million polar bear exhibit -- with a cooled saltwater pool and concrete cliffs covered in simulated ice and snow -- that can accommodate three to five bears. "Its goal was to have them there by 2017. But it doesn’t have a bear lined up, because it’s illegal to import them, captive cubs are rare and finding orphaned bears in Alaska is difficult," she writes. "The Fish and Wildlife Service could allow the importation of polar bears for public display through future legislative or regulatory changes but has shown no inclination to pursue those options."

Scientists estimate that there are now 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the wild. There are 64 in North  American zoos. The Philadelphia Zoo has two females -- Klondike, born at the Bronx Zoo, and Coldilocks, born at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, N.Y.  Both weigh upwards of 450 pounds. The zoo also has been active in polar bear research, supporting the work of Nikita Ovsyanikov in the Russian Arctic through Polar Bears International.

But ethical and logistical problems are sure to arise. Indeed, they already are beginning.

Ronald Sandler, an associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern University and director of the university’s Ethics Institute, called polar bears “one of the worst candidates for captivity” because they are large carnivores that can roam for thousands of miles in the wild, conditions that could hardly come even close to being replicated in a traditional zoo. “It doesn’t mean they’re miserable. But there’s no sense in which they’d be able to live out the life they’d have in the wild,” he told Eilperin.

Some say the best way to ensure the future of polar bears isn't to cart them off to zoos, but to lower worldwide carbon emissions and stop the Arctic ice melt. “If the world cares about polar bears, reducing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere is the only way to preserve polar bears’ habitat,”  Lily Peacock, a research biologist in the U.S. Geological Survey’s polar bear program, told Eilperin.

Lat November, Coca Cola launched a campaign to add $4 million to a World Wildlife Fund effort to preserve what they're calling the "Last Ice Area," roughly twice the size of Texas, where they expect the ice to last the longest.