In keeping with my willingness to photograph the lives of animals wherever I find them, I recently visited my own zoo. And there I met Tundra.

Tundra is a thirty-year-old polar bear who was born in San Diego and has lived in Indianapolis since the zoo was opened in the late 80’s. I talked at length with one of her keepers this week, discussing Tundra’s life, her personality, and the evolving standards for keeping polar bears in captivity. That’s a topic for another post, but one I’m thinking hard about. For her part, the issue of captivity or wildness is moot for Tundra as an individual. She was born in captivity, and she could not survive in the wild, especially at her advanced age.

When I first saw Tundra last week, she was playing with a stick across her enclosure. I walked up to the glass, and she met my eye, and then sniffed the air. After a few seconds she approached the water, appeared to consider for a few more moments, then flopped her enormous body sideways into the pool. A few seconds later, she popped up next to me, stick in tow. The entire thing unfolded like this:







There is no way, really, to get a feel for the heft and girth of this massive animal until she’s right next to you. Not unexpectedly, I found it thrilling, but still continued to question everything. Are human beings “meant” to have this kind of experience with a polar bear? Does it stir in us something worthwhile? Does it stir in us something that might be beneficial to polar bears as a group? What would it mean to refuse to keep animals in captivity while humans who are less concerned with the welfare of wildlife are industriously destroying their natural habitat?

I strongly suspect that the issue of captivity is complicated, and is probably species-dependent. As with almost anything, I reflexively distrust anyone whose opinions are untroubled by doubt, or whose answer is always the same for every situation, and every species.

So while I chew through it, I’ll keep visiting with Tundra.










16 thoughts on “Tundra

  1. Well… There seem to be a variety of means available to people who care about preserving creatures, habitats, biomes and so on. Captivity does have an important role. Tundra is doing well in her only known environment, which is inspiring to many. But for the sake of wild relatives other solutions need found, and certainly nobody should go out and deliberately capture polar bears for captivity in zoos, etc. Things must be utterly dire to be capturing them for the sake of species survival Polar bears merely being the poster child for a long line of endangered creatures and plants, etc.

    There is the legitimate concern that if wild animals are kept in captivity their descendants will lose the knowledge of how to survive in the wild. But then — the wild as they knew it may not be there when the time comes to reintroduce them, so how much does that matter?

    I happened to live in central California at the time the decision was made to take many California Condors out of the wild, to be bred at the San Diego Zoo. There were many legitimate questions, including whether this would leave a viable population in the wild. How would the captive bred chicks do once introduced into a suitable habitat later on? Unfortunately the species was so much reduced that there wasn’t any other choice but to capture some — other than letting them all slide away, an ancient species of massive bird that had outlived the capacity of its historic range to support it. So far some of the released chicks survive in Arizona, some don’t. There is promise in the captive breeding program, though. I’m not close to anyone on the project any more, but this US Fish & Wildlife site:

    indicates that plans are afoot to expand the number of chick release sites up into northern California and Oregon.

    “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a formal agreement this month with the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, the National Park Service’s Redwood National Park, the California State Parks, and the Ventana Wildlife Society to assess the possibility of releasing California Condors in coastal northern California and southern Oregon.

    “According to the agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) reflects the organizations’ collective belief that expanding the use of the condor’s “full historical range will enhance recovery efforts of the species as a whole.” The last known presence of a live condor in California’s Humboldt and Del Norte counties was shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.”

    I also was close at one time to a Peregrine Falcon recovery project in California which turned out to be very successful.

    Species preservation through captivity, and later appropriate release, can be done. Though just now the odds are so great against so very many species that the challenge of what and how to try to save them seem srather staggering. To say the least…

  2. Oh my gosh, I’d’ve died of pleasure if that had happened to me. I don’t know if that qualifies as truly enriching my life, but what an unusual experience, as anywhere but in a zoo encountering a polar bear would be a frightening thing. This bear seemed curious about you, and even playful, and what a great side of this creature to get to see. That seems like an enriching experience. For you. The bear, well, I have to feel sorry for it living its whole life in an enclosed space.

    1. You could go visit her since you’re in town! She’s fairly in tune with humans. I talked with her keeper this weekend about that very issue — living her life in an enclosure. I don’t really know if she’s aware that she’s missing anything. I just don’t know. But she seems to have a very vivid personality, and does not seem to have developed any of the neuroses or problems that some captive animals have. I’m going to visit her again soon, and get to know her better.

  3. Being in captivity is horrendous, for any living being. It’s almost inhumane, a polar bear never standing on an ice-flow getting to see the horizon, or a gorilla never getting to explore forested hillsides he’s never seen; a human always watching the sun span a small arc overhead, appearing from behind a wall and then disappearing down behind this other wall. It destroys life, the whales that go nuts in captivity, can only think how a dog feels after waking up from a dream about chasing rabbits and female dogs through prairie, only to wake up in a small backyard it gets shocked for trying to leave.
    But, if we could tell the polar bear, “Hey, every polar bear is dying, you’re one of the last ones, if you want to save your species than stay put in your cage.” I’m sure most humans would choose to stay, too. As for the dogs?
    They’re still wondering why they dream about woods they’ve never run through.

    1. Anthropomorphize much? Assuming an animal born in captivity will have the human capacity to know what he’s missing (which would require experience on some level, such as movies, reading, real life) is not a particularly compelling argument, in itself. The legitimacy of keeping animals in captivity, who have been born into captivity, for whatever reason, depends on their ability to adapt to the wild if released. This polar bear has no clue about standing on an ice floe looking at the horizon, any more than you would know what you’re missing if you’ve never been to Chiang Mai, or Beijing, nor read or heard about that experience.

  4. I like that you clearly enjoy photography, but also see the truth in what you take pictures of, that there is an emotional and attachment behind each click. I’ve read several of your posts, and I’m so glad I found your blog. The pics are quite lovely by the way💜

  5. I think it’s just cool that the bear is a nice bear that, I’m guessing must’ve been around many humans or just nice ones that it got used to. That’s like not heard of much, but I figure all animals have I instincts and the ability to somehow sense a dangerous being or a kind one. More than that I think if animals are able to have such instincts to trust, humans would have to possess the same ones. Idk. Just thinking out loud. Nice post.

    1. Thanks; thinking out loud is good. I’m pretty sure she’s become very habituated to human beings, and seeing her keepers just over the wall. Maybe there is something of trust in us all. I don’t know either.

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