The Alaska Zoo is proud to be home to many sub-Arctic and Arctic animals like the polar bear, it’s great to see this huge animal up close in the Zoo.
Right after I landed at Anchorage Alaska, the very first thing that I did was to head off to see Polar bears at Alaska zoo. I love to photograph them and see them in person. I have heard so many stories about them like being a very refined hunter and with super senses. Their eyesight and sense of smell is very strong. Reportedly, a polar bear can smell a seal up to 20 miles away!
Polar bears are amazing. These incredibly huge, majestic animals live in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. Imagine living in temperatures that can plunge as low as -50°F! Polar bears have evolved over time to withstand the bitter cold of the Arctic. How are they evolving though in captivity?
Though these animals sometimes look happy with their small habitats and pressing their face to the glass as children laugh, the truth of the matter is much more disconcerting. Living in captivity, these huge animals displayed behaviours like pacing, lethargy, and depression.
This happens because captive polar bears are not living completely. In the wild, polar bears spend their time swimming around ice floes and lounging on sea ice. Because the ice caps are melting, they can’t do that anymore. Furthermore, in zoos, polar bears have to paddle in a shallow pool or circle a concrete platform. Instead of hunting for their meals, they wait for zookeepers to feed them. Being unable to do their natural actions, polar bears sometimes sink into sadness.
“Zoochosis” is a term that defines abnormal behaviours found in captive zoo and aquarium animals. Pacing, rocking, swaying, and bobbing or flicking the head side to side are done in repetition. Some animals may even resort to self-mutilation by biting and licking themselves. Polar bears are no different.
The tiny enclosure is just one component to the stress that zoo and aquarium animals experience. Polar bears taken from the wild and put on display in front of people are not used to the tapping on glass, flashing lights, loud voices, and various climate. There is nowhere for the polar bear to hide.
So what happens when people decide to invade their enclosures? The stress and fear is funneled onto that one intruder the polar bear doesn’t know, and cases like the Alaska Zoo or Berlin Zoo mauling occurs.
Returning to the Wild
It is one thing that zoo proponents and critics will agree upon. Those bears that have been taken from the wild at a young age may not be able to go home, because their home may be gone. Additionally, polar bears born and raised in captivity cannot be returned to the wild. During the first couple years of a polar bear’s life, the mother bear teaches them the necessary survival skills, like hunting and swimming, that they need to live in the wild. Obviously, in a zoo, there is no mother bear, just zookeepers. If these bears raised in captivity were to be released in the wild, they wouldn’t survive.
The differences between captive and wild polar bears is astounding. Captive polar bears do not have the skills needed to survive in the wild, and they may display Zoochosis-related behaviors. Meanwhile, wild polar bears are at risk of disappearing alongside their environment. Without the proper efforts, we may lose the chance to see wild, roaming polar bears.
Being Endangered Mammals
Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008. The survival and the protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues.
The picture below was taken in one of the fur shop I visited in the main town of Anchorage. The owner display a dead preserved Polar bear in his shop, which was the last polar bear being hunted in Alaska by his grandfather, before they legally banned hunting for this poor animals.
As seen in the photo above, standing on its hind legs, an adult male polar bear may reach more than 10 feet (3 m), may weigh up to 1,500 pounds. The petite females stand only up to about 8 feet tall and tip the scales at a svelte 550 pounds or less.
Their claws are shorter and sharper than their brown bear cousins on land, measuring up to 3.75 inches including the terminal phalanges (a small piece of bone like our fingertip) or up to 6 inches if you include the first full digit, or entire toe, and the claw. Their claws are also very thick, sharp and curved – the better to grip frozen sea ice or slippery prey, like a ringed seal.
Being huge and with all these claws, Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in the world, rivaled only by the Kodiak brown bears of southwestern Alaska. Polar bears sit at the top of the food chain in the biologically rich Arctic.
Hoping I could photograph these huge mammals in their wild home. Till then, I’m just glad I captured and see the close up photos of these mammals.