Polar Bear Blog – Assiniboine Zoo Saves Its First Bear

Well, I was going to write about Kaktovik and Churchill but an article in the Free Press kind of changed that. It explained that the first polar bear is about to be ‘saved’ by the Assiniboine Zoo, shipped to Winnipeg in the next couple weeks.  This is something that Churchillians and bear guides have viewed with skepticism for some time now – saving bears by removing them from the wild and placing them in captivity.

Now, there is a case for ‘saving’ this polar bear. This young (three year old, 260lb bear) bear was involved in the now-famous polar bear incident in Churchill where a border services guard was attacked during a late-night walk home from the bar. Manitoba Conservation seems to have a policy (I guess…?) that bears involved in serious human encounters are euthanized.

So, instead of killing this bear, it will get a new life in the Assiniboine Zoo – or as a rental to another zoo possibly. This is a feel-good story, right? Then why do I feel so down?

1. We have the technology to save this bear. In my brief renewed friendship with PBI – that didn’t seem to work… ha – Krista Wright was very excited about a new chip technology that was to be instituted in Churchill. Manitoba Conservation even said they would foot the bill. Polar bears in the jail will have a chip or transmitter or something implanted so that Polar Bear Alert can detect them when they near town.

Basically, the old Buggy Driver joke about putting chips in bears to find them seems to be very close to reality now. On one hand, if used with moderation, this could really help keep residents safe in the community. On the other hand, there is a concern that this will result in more handling of bears outside the community as preventative measures. We’ll see.

Now, I can’t tell if the technology is ready to roll but it sure sounded like it last year. If it is, is this bear not the perfect case as ‘patient zero’? I mean even if it is transported to the holding facility, back to Churchill and then released back in the wild with a chip – is this not a fantastic opportunity to study the true behaviour of a ‘problem’ bear?

I guess at least it brings attention to the need to review Manitoba Conservation’s polar bear handling policies… Now that ‘Bambi’s Law’ is in place, there needs to be some plans for handling bears that are not cute or young enough for zoos. Right?

2. Its our fault not the bear. Walking home alone at 2am or whatever in a summer where bears have been spotted around town is not a great idea but, also, it happens all the time and has for years. However, the real problem is Churchill and Manitoba’s garbage handling in the community. Gypsy Bakery might actually have one of the better bear-proof garbage containers in Churchill but, as a whole, Churchill is so far from ‘bear-proof’. The few bear-proof containers in town are made of chain link fencing – pretty outdated to be honest.

At the governmental level, both the Feds and Province commanded Churchill to decommission the old garbage dump by 2004. During this time, Churchill went through Town Managers at about the same rate as Spinal Tap goes through drummers (yes, I am old.) That combined with some inept consultants (who somehow got rehired) and a hands-off attitude by Manitoba and Canada we somehow ended up with a waste transfer station right beside the community – with no waste being transferred.

With their hand forced by the government, Churchill moved it without a real plan in place and years later, we still have no permanent solution although Edgar Botelho has pretty much bear-proofed L5 – you can never say that guy doesn’t get shit done. Bears are still attracted to the smell and now camp out closer to town. This, more than melting sea ice, is primarily responsible for the increase in bear traffic.

I pitched Polar Bears International about helping resolve the Churchill garbage/bear-proofing concerns a few years back and the response was that it was a municipal issue and therefore PBI could not offer assistance.  More recently, I brought up the idea of cameras in the rocks near Churchill to assist Polar Bear Alert officers.  Again, this idea was rejected because of public privacy concerns (except that no one actually goes walking out there…) instead a beluga cam was launched with the extra bandwidth… fun!  Interesting where lines are drawn when it comes to helping bears…

I guess I am just disappointed that literally millions upon millions have been raised for near-vacant polar bear exhibits across North America while I have watched the opportunities for Churchill residents to ‘go for a Sunday bear cruise’ continually erode and our ‘policing’ of polar bears drastically increase.  Maybe disappointed at how an International Polar Bear Conservancy Centre ended up in Winnipeg and not Churchill too… But that’s probably selfish thinking I guess…

I wish I could feel good about the fact that this bear has been ‘saved’, then again, I have a feeling I’ll have more than a few chances to reconsider as we save more and more bears.

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