Thin Ice: A Polar Bear’s Plight

Most polar bears don’t live in Oregon Most aren’t born in Ohio Most don’t survive being abandoned by their mothers
when they’re just a week old But all of those things were true for Nora a young polar bear who has had to deal with a number of challenges in her short life For a year, Nora entertained thousands of visitors
here at the Oregon Zoo but now the exhibit is empty and Nora is gone Before her second birthday she was already on the move to her third zoo Few people know Nora’s full backstory and the uncertain future she faces. I
spent most of last year learning about Nora’s troubled life. I wanted to
understand why it’s so hard to raise polar bears in captivity and why it’s becoming harder for them to survive in the wild To tell Nora’s story and to learn
more about her lineage we traveled from Portland to Anchorage
then Nome and finally to Wales, Alaska a tiny community less than 60 miles from
Russia across the Bering Strait Headed to Wales Just landed in Wales now we just need to figure out where we stand and how to get over there Well we’re sitting on the of a back four wheeler just hopped off the plane we’re heading to the tribal office to get situated this is a town of about 150 people Wales is remote and cold in the winter.
Sea ice forms along the coast extending more than a mile into the Bering Strait For centuries, Wales residents have lived a subsistence
lifestyle hunting and fishing for survival The sea and ice have provided much of their prey which can include whales,
seals, walruses and polar bears Nora’s father Nanuq was born near here
in 1988 That was the same year Nanuq’s mother,
Nora’s grandmother, had a fateful encounter with a Wales resident named
Gene Rex Agnaboogok I woke up like I believe it was about eight o’clock in the morning and got, got going I went up just
following the coast and on my way up I saw the tracks I probably trailed the polar
bear on my sno-go for about 15-20 minutes I drove to this highest iceberg
so I could have a higher viewpoint looking around with my binoculars see if
I could see anything but I couldn’t I didn’t spot anything besides foxes
running here and there Had my coffee and cigarette break and anyway as I was going down I thought I’d shortcut to my snow machine took a different trail That’s when I fell through the den the ground had given way beneath Gene He dropped down, landing on something that felt distinctly different than the snow
and ice he was used to having underfoot After a moment’s confusion he came to an
incredible realization That he was standing on top of a polar bear Didn’t feel too safe being on the bear I couldn’t see it, I kept trying to run,
every time I tried to make forward progress it would just put me right back where I
started running from It was similar to I would guess maybe trying to run on a water bed There was absolutely no traction I could get whatsoever Gene couldn’t really run and
could barely keep his balance He finally managed to leap clear but he wasn’t yet out of reach Soon as I got off of running on top the bear she reached with her paw Had ahold of my leg, she went around again tried to grab me again that’s when I was lucky and got free When she lost her grip with her paw on
my leg she attempted to bite my other leg but her nose was on the back of my knee I was lucky her head wasn’t sideways, otherwise I’d have had no leg but instead of biting my leg she just pushed me forward and that’s when she ran up to
the highest point on the den and faced me She was ready to pounce or jump or do something That’s when I went and shot her Knowing he might only get one shot, Gene
aimed for the spot where the bear’s neck and chest met The bullet struck her and she collapsed I shot her once more I didn’t want to leave it wounded or anything so I had to make sure it was dead and shot it again that’s when I noticed
movement kind of made me jump back because I thought it was still alive,
that’s when I noticed the cubs The bear gene had just killed left behind two cubs, including Nora’s dad They were too young to be a threat to him and also too young to survive on their own but before figuring out what to do with
them Gene had more pressing matters to attend to I thought maybe I spilled some coffee on my leg but I look at my hand after
checking under my ski pants and it was blood Her one claw punctured my leg, it went at least an inch deep Tried to make it fast as I could back, after I got home from the clinic I told the story to my dad and my nephew and they went up so they could
salvage the hide and see if they could pick up the cubs, they brought them into
the house and I had them in my house for I don’t know I’m guessing maybe two
hours Then I had to deliver them to Fish and Game The lady from the Nome Nugget came
here and asked to print the story Anyway that was about what all happened
then Nora’s grandmother wasn’t the first polar bear Gene killed and she wasn’t the last but as years have passed, Gene and other Wales hunters have noticed fewer polar bears to hunt and changes in the weather patterns they’ve counted on for generations In a community that relies on predictable weather for hunting, it has been a disturbing trend All my life every spring and every fall
you hunt It’s not a game it’s a way of life You take a seven-cents bullet to a
couple hundred dollars worth of meat, do the math I used to hunt polar bear every year I lost count how many polar bears I got in my lifetime Every spring we used to have luck not like today Today our freezer’s empty I kind of think the population
is somewhat lower than in the seventies because that ice was about four and a
half feet thick and right now you’d you’ll be lucky if you find ice that is
two feet thick It’s because of the ice They have to be in the ice Ice is melting more and forming later and thinner They have to go where their environment is All the game that goes, come by here they’re real close to about a month early than before, to be more successful you gotta be up early and take advantage of the weather because it’ll change real
quick now The effects of warming temperatures is affecting our hunting You just learn how to adapt If you don’t learn how to adapt then you’re in trouble Adapting is one thing for humans but
polar bears probably can’t evolve quick enough to keep up with the rapid changes
to their habitat the Cubs gene orphaned sidestepped this
problem by living out their lives in zoos forever leaving the sea ice of the
Bering Strait behind Nora’s dad Nanuq spent time at zoos in Anchorage Alaska, Madison Wisconsin, and Buffalo New York before living out his days in Columbus
Ohio It was there that he fathered Nora in 2015 Polar bear moms raise cubs on
their own with no help from males but Nora’s mom Aurora abandoned her when she was just a few days old A zoo in the Midwestern United
States is a very different place than the Arctic sea ice If Nora had been abandoned here, near Wales, where her father was born she would have been dead
within hours Even in the friendlier confines of the Columbus Zoo to survive she would need help from a team of zookeepers who stepped in when time was
running out When Nora was born we had three staff
members watching her around the clock remotely from camera They’re about a pound when they’re born
they fit in the palm of your hand typically polar bear moms will spend
anywhere from three to four months tucked up in that little den with their
cub we had started seeing Aurora come out of the den for short periods of time
we do provide water and food right next to the den so they don’t have to travel
far you know at first it was oh she went out she went right back in and
things were fine and she reunited with her cub and everything was fine It was cause for concern but she returned to den so we just you know we kept
watching and then on day six she decided to get up and leave This time Aurora didn’t return The zoo staff watched anxiously and listened to her growls and whimpers as Nora, not yet a week old, waited alone in the cold den You want moms to raise their babies you know we put so much heart and soul and love and
care into raising Nora but no one’s gonna do it as well as a polar bear
mom is we watched her we watched her and she didn’t appear to us to be in any
distress and then so we went we were at hour one, hour two, hour three and we
hit hour four and we all The vocalizations started getting
just a little bit softer and we all looked at each other and said it’s time The zoo staff swooped in wrapping Nora in blankets and whisking her away bringing
her body temperature back up and getting food in her stomach It was kind of scary
I mean it was taking a big leap of faith in what we could do but it was also, you
know, that moment you can’t take it back We knew that the odds were very much against us doing this one not having done it before, but two just naturally the success rate is low But I remember
Cindy coming in and it was just her and I in the office and Cindy sat down in
front of me and you know we’re both almost in tears but she said we can do
this And I looked at her and I said OK And then we gathered our things and then we just never looked back Raising Nora became the primary
responsibility of five zoo employees who became known as the ‘Nora Moms’ each with their own area of specialization But it’s extremely rare to successfully hand-raise a polar bear and there wasn’t much existing data to go on The team was largely on their own to figure out things like the nutritional makeup of the formula that would replace Nora’s mother’s milk Most attempts to hand
raise polar bears have failed About 80 percent of the cubs die in the first 30 days so they couldn’t afford many mistakes So much hand-rearing knowledge
can be translated across species it really can but the, the fine elements
of doing a particular species not until you do it you know how to do it
it just showed how, how great of a job they did getting Nora through those first
critical months After 30 days you don’t relax but you kinda go OK we’re through the first you know and then opening her eyes and her nose turning colors and the bottoms of her feet turning black there was just a day that I just kind
of relaxed my shoulders and went ‘We’re good’ The zookeepers would never know why
Aurora abandoned Nora Aurora and her sister Anana both had cubs a year later which meant there was no room in the dens for Nora they needed to find
her a new home where she could live with and learn from
polar bears who would accept her Typically cubs will stay with moms for
for about two years, eighteen months Y’know we knew once we were
hand-raising Nora that that was y’know potentially she would she would leave sooner than that I think our goal for Nora has always been to have her grow up to be a normal bear you know as normal as any mother-reared
cub would be and getting her in with another bear is just really a crucial step in that journey As much as we loved having our own time with her, for her to go on and someday have cubs of her own we want her to learn proper bear etiquette, and the best way to do that is from another bear getting her to that point, it’s really what’s best for her I think a lot of us likened it to
sending your child off to school or something that it was you have to let go
but that doesn’t make it any easier As sad as it was to see her go, y’know you’re kind of a proud mom in that moment because you say look, she’s fine, she’s gonna be just fine and again we see her on those videos, and she’s getting so big and she’s so beautiful I think she’s the most beautiful bear around she just kinda created this bigger importance for the zoo as a whole Polar bear viewing is through the building everybody The importance of polar bears to zoos hasn’t always been quite as clear As recently as the 1990s some zoos were shutting
down polar bear exhibits in order to allocate more resources to species with
more urgent conservation needs But as climate change became more obvious, especially its effects in the Arctic that all began to change Although no one
knows exactly how many polar bears exist in the wild several key bear populations
have seen their numbers dwindle in recent years as the sea ice has
continued to shrink Today one of the few places where the polar bear population is rising is at zoos in North America A couple hours drive north of Columbus at
the Toledo Zoo Dr. Randi Meyerson coordinates the Species Survival Plan
for polar bears, a program that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has
established to help make sure captive bears throughout North America are
matched with situations that best suit them both socially and genetically When the program was originally started it was to make sure that we weren’t
breeding too many polar bears because polar bear cubs are cute and people love
them as adults and they’re interactive we wanted to make sure that all the
animals that we were breeding were the best we could do genetically because
polar bear exhibits were closing down so we were losing the space where they
could live so in 1995 in the first North American regional stud book there were
about 200 bears in almost 100 facilities and then I did the
next update to the stud book which was in 2005 and at that point we were already
down to 80 bears in 40 facilities people were sending their polar bears to
other facilities and they were closing down theirs and they were going to use
that money for a species that had a higher conservation value, then all of a
sudden climate change became evident and polar bears really became the flagship
species, sort of the canary in the coal mine because it’s starting with the warming Arctic but eventually you know it will affect everyone worldwide Often we talk about animals in our facilities as ambassadors for their species but I
really think polar bears are the extreme example for that in that actions people
can take in their home in their backyard do affect the sea ice where the bears
live in the wild, being able to educate people inspire them hopefully get them
to change their habits it just makes it really fulfilling – a little scary but
fulfilling – to be part of this big project What that project meant for Nora
was that she’d be moving to the Pacific Northwest The Oregon Zoo had a female
polar bear named Tasul who needed a companion and Nora needed to learn how
to be a bear Nora left the Columbus Zoo in September of 2016 to start her new life in Portland Nora came to us specifically because we
had Tasul, a mature adult female who had recently lost her brother so she was
alone but her whole life she’d been in a social situation we thought there was a
real opportunity there for her to mentor this young bear who’d never really been
in with another animal Nora spent her first 30 days in Oregon under quarantine
physically separated from Tasul but able to see and smell her when they were
finally introduced face to face it quickly became clear that Nora was more
comfortable around her human keepers than another bear twice her size Tasul definitely approached Nora each time we would open the door at a run she was
interested and wanted to play and I think that that terrified Nora to be
honest she definitely I would say panicked and that was hard for us to see
that but at the same time it’s natural and it’s time for her to learn how to
become a bear The zoo kept trying to unite Nora and Tasul hoping that someday Nora would be able to relax and become accustomed to her new companion
easing into the knowledge that she herself was a polar bear but the
relationship was slow to develop and soon other complications arose We never saw quite as much interaction as we would have liked to see I think a
younger bear than Tasul might have pushed the issue a little bit and encouraged Nora to play Tasul sort of would make one effort and then when Nora didn’t respond she would just go lay down to take a nap and
unfortunately right about that time we learned that Tasul was not well so
we called off the introductions we thought temporarily to do some
diagnostics and discovered that she had a tumor which was probably very painful
and at her age we made the decision to to euthanize her during that procedure so
unfortunately that was the end of our our efforts to get those two bears
together Nora found herself alone again with renovations for the Oregon Zoo’s
polar exhibit on the horizon it didn’t make sense to bring in another bear any
time soon Nora was a year and a half old but hadn’t spent more than ten days with
another polar bear To be with her own kind it became clear that she would have to leave the Oregon Zoo It’s an important
part of her life and the potential richness of her life is to have another
bear in her world Tasul passes away and here she is on her own again Over the last six months eight months she has gotten much calmer much more patient and
we’re gonna be tearing down our exhibit and building a new one here in the next
year so the timing is actually good for us to find a good home for her it’s also
a time when in the wild bears would be leaving their mother and going off on
their own and most likely coming into contact with other bears and trying to
form relationships so everything’s kind of working together to make this a great
opportunity for her The zoo announced in the summer of 2017 that Nora would move to the Hogle Zoo in Utah where she would join another young bear from Ohio Hope, about the same age as Nora, would be an ideal partner for her at this point in
her life but just when things were starting to look up for Nora some
unexpectedly bad news threw her life into disarray once more We knew when we
received Nora that she had had some difficulties when she was small and some
health challenges and there were there were times when they thought they were gonna lose this little, this little cub very early on she had some difficulty
tolerating the formula that she was on it had everything she needed but she wasn’t absorbing it very well and they discovered at about two months that she
had had some problems with metabolic bone disease but at four months the
radiographs made it look like everything was fine and I think we all just sort of
breathed a sigh of relief it’s a treatable condition and ideally she would be just
fine a few months ago probably about four months ago we noticed one of her elbows seemed to be bent out to the side a little more and maybe she was favoring
one of her feet Unfortunately we have discovered that she has a number of problems Both of her elbows have some irregularities in them that may well cause her a great deal of discomfort going forward and unfortunately because
of where the deformities are they’re too close to the joint they’re in very large
weight supporting bones the idea of doing a surgery and trying to do a
correction or an internal fixation has a pretty high risk of failure and if you
go forward with a procedure like that and it fails it can be catastrophic and
you end up having to euthanize the animal so at this point we’re, we’re
watching Nora we’re communicating really closely with the vet staff at Hogle
and hoping really for the best but these are gonna be lasting changes for Nora She is gonna have some difficulty with those joints she’ll likely have early onset arthritis and we’ll need to manage her pain and it’s something we’ll need
to monitor her whole life Nora’s future will be determined in
large part by what the Hogle Zoo can do to help her but more than that
zoos in general will play an increasing role in the future of her entire species She’s so beautiful With a diminishing and remote habitat, wild bears are difficult for scientists to study having polar bears accessible in zoos allows for research that might otherwise be impossible Zoos are becoming more and more centers of science and conservation polar bears are incredibly difficult to study in the wild they’re virtually unreachable most of the year we have access to them, to them every single day We follow them for their entire lives There’s this incredible opportunity for us to be collaborating with those scientists and
answering some of those questions that they need to understand to figure out
how to manage polar bears as their sea ice habitat is degraded One of those scientists is Karyn Rode, who works for the United States Geological Survey Rode has been studying the effects of sea ice loss firsthand for years making annual trips to the Chukchi Sea in Alaska where Nora’s father Nanuq was born She uses a helicopter to track, sedate and gather data from as many as 75 bears a year I’ve been working in the Chukchi Sea since 2008 each spring we go out to
capture bears between mid March and the end of April we capture about
seventy-five bears a year The objective of that work is to try to understand the status of the population how healthy it is but also try to understand how it’s
responding to sea ice loss This year we had unusual ice conditions we know that this past March which is supposed to be the time of year when there’s more sea
ice than any other time of the year it was the least amount of ice that’s ever
occurred in March on record in the satellite record since the 70’s, areas
that the previous year I’d captured up to 35 bears in nine days was open water
this year the bears started to move out of the study area and we ended our
season about a week early as a result The primary way that we think that
polar bears are and will be affected by sea ice loss is that they need sea ice
as a platform to hunt They eat primarily seals when they’re out on the sea ice and the only way that they can capture those seals is when they haul out on the
ice or they get them at breathing holes so the way in which sea ice loss has
affected polar bears thus far is that they have less access to their prey and when
they eat less we see declines in their condition so how much they weigh how
much fat they have They may continue to produce cubs but they produce cubs that weigh less and those cubs that weigh less we know have lower probability of survival The projections for places like the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in Alaska are pretty significant amounts of sea ice loss beyond really what we, we know how they’ll be able to cope with and so the projections in those places are that those populations are at risk of extinction in the long term In September of 2017
Nora arrived at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City Hope arrived a few days later
from Toledo and the two bears each began a quarantine period which is standard
procedure any time a zoo animal gets moved Critics of zoos say the facilities can’t provide a meaningful life to the animals that live there Their enclosures are often tiny fractions of the areas they roam in the wild They become completely dependent on humans They don’t get to satisfy their natural
instincts to hunt and smart animals like polar bears sometimes get bored These issues can manifest themselves in abnormal behavior Polar bears have been seen pacing for hours on end and rocking back and forth Some animals have been
diagnosed with anxiety and depression Nora started showing some of these
behaviors soon after she arrived at the Oregon Zoo She threw tantrums when her keepers left her alone and the problems got worse
with the stress of introductions to Tasul Ultimately her keepers decided to put her on Xanax and then Prozac Her symptoms improved but they never completely went away She continues to be
on antidepressants to this day Her anxiety, coupled with her serious bone
and joint problems means keepers will have to watch Nora closely It’ll be another two years before Nora is completely grown and the extent of her
bone issues is fully understood About a week after the move zookeepers in Utah said Nora seemed nervous in her new environment We couldn’t tell for ourselves because they wouldn’t let us see her Zoos rarely let the media film
in their holding areas The bars and fences behind the scenes clash with the
image of zoos that PR staffs strive to maintain Nora had a state-of-the-art facility waiting for her but she was not yet on public display Nora’s life may never be trouble-free, but neither are the lives of her wild counterparts They’re roaming thousands of miles in search of food and having trouble reproducing as their body condition declines Scientists say that
two thirds of all polar bears could be gone in 30 years if sea ice continues to
melt away One argument in favor of zoos is that
maybe if people fall in love with one animal they’ll be willing to take action
to benefit the rest of them Thousands of people have fallen in love with Nora A handful of people have already done the nearly impossible to save her But polar bears in the Arctic continue to wait for humanity to demonstrate that they too
are worth saving

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