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.