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November/December 2006

Staying True to the Polar Bears

by Karen Mouradjian

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”   - Gandhi

In 2001, the Detroit Zoo, under Ron Kagan’s direction, opened the Arctic Ring of Life for their polar bears, and the results are miraculous.  Kagan’s compassion and commitment is a driving force in educating visitors about the impact of global warming and how the smallest environmental changes can positively or negatively affect the lives of animals with which we share the planet.

In recognizing that the old exhibit (established in the 1920’s) needed updating, Kagan approached his colleagues with an entirely different vision beyond just expansion and modification.

He asked his colleagues, “Why don’t we just do a quantum leap and invent a new way of keeping polar bears in captivity?”

The project began in the late 1990’s when Kagan, his project manager, and chief architect, spent time with the Inuit in the Arctic to photograph the polar ice pack.

“We were a few hundred miles away from the North Pole to try and make sure we created an authentic environment for both people and animals.”  Said Kagan.

In October 2001, their mission paid off.  The Arctic Ring of Life consists of 4.2 acres, a 70-foot long clear indoor tunnel for visitors viewing, has 300,000 gallons of chilled salt water, and currently hosts four bears.  Kagan hopes to receive another bear soon and ideally would like to have five or six bears.

One of the greatest polar bear success stories is Barle, a female bear rescue that spent over 20 years in captivity with the Suarez Brothers Circus in Puerto Rico.  Due to joint efforts of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the United States Humane Society, PETA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Barle was finally confiscated and moved to the Detroit Zoo.  After a few months of her quarantine, Kagan shares her success story.

“She’s doing fabulous.” Said Kagan. “She’s the mother of a cub (Talini).  She’s demonstrated incredible resilience that not all animals have.  Given what she went through, she’s adjusted well both environmentally and socially.  It’s amazing.  She loved the snow, which she hadn’t seen in probably 20 years, she loved swimming, which she hadn’t been able to do either.  As far as I can tell, she hasn’t demonstrated any permanent damage in terms of behavior; it’s a pretty amazing story.”

Kagan also explained the great detail that goes into the bears’ care.

“The ice machine can make 1800 pounds of ice, each block weighing about 300 pounds.”  Said Kagan.  “We often imbed fish, fruits, vegetables, and various other treats in the ice.  The ice blocks float in the water; how long they last depends on the temperature and how much the bears play with them.”

Kagan explains that traditionally zoos kept polar bears in fresh water for convenience, but that was not as good for the animals.  He points out the large saltwater infrastructure that is considered one of the unique features of the exhibition’s design.  “I suspect that added about a million dollars to the cost of the facility because we have an entire building that basically does all the water filtration.  It takes a very elaborate infrastructure to do that.”

Kagan acknowledges the growing problem of global warming affecting polar bears in the wild.   Many wild polar bears weigh 10% less in recent years.  Also, many polar bears are drowning due to the melting of the ice shelves; they have to swim for food as far as 80 miles out.  The competition for food is even causing bears to attack each other.  Still, Kagan emphasizes, that small changes we humans make can greatly improve the bears’ lives.

“It is important for people not to give up and to try in their own small ways to do things which are less harmful to the environment.”  Said Kagan.

After all, wouldn’t we all love to see these animals once again thrive in the wild?  And, as for Talini and Barle, perhaps their offspring can teach future generations how love and compassion for the animals greatly improves all of our lives.

Karen Mouradjian is a freelance photojournalist and has been published in various Michigan and Wisconsin publications.  She is currently studying for the LSAT and is a strong advocate for social justice, the environment, animal welfare, and battered women issues.

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