I still remember a field trip that our fourth or fifth grade class took to a major zoo not far from my hometown in one of the exurbs of Chicago.
The polar bear exhibit was especially memorable. As I recall, two bears were caged (I wish I could have said "living") in a relatively small (maybe 20' x 30') enclosure. The cage was bare with three walls of gray concrete and one wall of bars.
But the image that had the most lasting impact on me was that of these magnificent creatures pacing back and forth along the wall of bars.
I remember thinking that dealing with the demands and hazards of living in its natural environ-ment was for more beneficial than life in the "safety" of this "protected" environment.
The memory of that scene has led me to avoid visiting any other zoo for over 50 years.
Now one could certainly question me about the fixed thought that nothing would have changed in over five decades in understanding the need to provide zoo habitats that replicate an animal's natural living space. But that reluctance to visit another zoo simply shows how vivid that image was and how long the memory of it has endured.
But in San Diego one of the most popular attractions (maybe the most popular) is the Zoo. And it was time to see what had changed in zoo management.
Well, . . . as you can see from the photos here a lot has changed--but you all knew that already.
All traces of a cage are gone--and probably have been for a number of years.
Our first views of the bears were during their play in their pool. And I really believe that "play" is the best description of the activity.
In another part of their environment, we saw a display of the bears' favorite toys.
After their post-swim walk, the pair found spaces where they could munch on a few carrots. Seeing these two enjoying themselves in the different parts of the setting and calmly enjoying a meal was not only reassuring to me--as well as a bit jolting to my lingering recollection of the zoos of the early 1950s--but also a very gratifying experience.
We learned about Arctic Ambas-sadors, which is a conservation program established by the San Diego Zoo and Polar Bears International to further efforts to protect polar bears in their native habitat. The program includes some of the world’s top leaders in polar bear education, research, and husbandry and involves zoos as educators and conservation partners.
"As climate change impacts the extent of Arctic ice, more research and education are needed to protect polar bear populations,” said Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., head of Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo. “By partnering with Polar Bears International, the San Diego Zoo has a unique opportunity to assist in polar bear conservation by focusing on questions that are best addressed in zoos and will have useful application both here and in the wild."
Fifty years between trips to the zoo is w-a-a-a-a-a-y too long.