The Plight of the Polar Bear

What Corwin talks about in this first chapter is how Polar Bears are in danger of being added to the 100 heartbeats list. As we change the temperature of the world with our gas emissions, ice is melting. Polar Bears need that ice to cross so they can get to areas of water to hunt their prey. With ice melting and larger bodies of water to cross, polar bears have a more difficult time finding food without expending too much energy. Some, even, drown due to the large amount of water they have to swim across. They are adapted to live on ice, and swim, but not to live in water. Jeff Corwin is working with a scientist named Steve Amstrup, who is an expert on polar bears, in this chapter.

Here are some important facts I gathered from my readings online and the book itself:

Why is global warming so bad for polar bears?
They feed almost entirely from sea ice. They catch seals as they come up to breathe or climb onto the ice. This year set a new record for melting sea ice. -from the book

“Polar bears spent their entire evolutionary history adapting to the sea-ice environment. Less than 300,000 years ago, they diverged from Brown Bears and began adapting to their frigid climate by developing fur on their feet to give them better purchase on the slippery ice. Their huge feet also act like snowshoes when the snow is soft underfoot. And their fur functions as a superefficient insulating and heating system. What look like white outer hairs are actually hollow, transparent tubes that tend to conserve heat. Polar bears are graced with a keen sense of smell- they can trace the scent of a seal that’s under 6 feet of snow from a few miles away. They’ve adapted so well to their environment, in fact, that now they can’t survive without it” . p.8-9

Earlier in his career, Amstrup solved the mystery of where female polar bears give birth. More than half of them dig their dens on ice floes to have their cubs, making the species vulnerable to climate change. (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2012/1019/Steven-Amstrup-says-it-s-not-too-late-to-save-polar-bears-and-ourselves/(page)/3)

You might be wondering, why should I care? Well, here is just one of the many reasons:
“The world is changing so fast. We need to act fast to change its direction. Time really is of the essence here. Even if you don’t care about polar bears, we’re talking about changes that affect all life on Earth,” he says. “Polar bears just happen to be feeling it first because their habitat happens to literally melt when the temperature rises.” (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2012/1019/Steven-Amstrup-says-it-s-not-too-late-to-save-polar-bears-and-ourselves/(page)/3)

From these facts it is fairly clear why Polar Bears are in danger of becoming extinct. They are made specifically to live on the ice and they use their habitat to ensure the survival of their offspring and therefore themselves. I know people tire of hearing about how gas emissions has caused global warming, even I find it tiring because it seems hopeless. I mean, how can we reverse the effect when no one is truly willing to give up driving their cars around? We are so dependent on certain types of technology and if others aren’t going to give it up, what’s the point of me giving it up? The funny thing is, I chose my major (Conservation Biology) because I wanted to help save animals that are affected by human activities or in danger from other sources, but every class I walk into has the same message. I have had professors at ASU tell me, “Well, here is the gist of it, we have screwed up the planet, and there’s no hope. All we are doing is buying more time.” Inspiring, right? Yeah, that was my same thought. While researching Steve Amstrup’s work, I came across plenty of hope, not just to buy time but reverse our damage and save Polar Bears and essentially other animals. So, here are some quotes I gathered to give you, as readers, hope for the future.

“Steven Amstrup, a senior scientist at Polar Bears International, has led a team of researchers that discovered that, contrary to expectations, even if all the sea ice in the Arctic disappeared, once the planet cooled back down, it would return.
“That was one of the great discoveries that allowed us to continue to instill hope in people that we could do something,” Dr. Amstrup says. “Human nature is such that, if you think there’s nothing you can do, you don’t do anything. So this was a really important find.” (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2012/1019/Steven-Amstrup-says-it-s-not-too-late-to-save-polar-bears-and-ourselves/(page)/3)

ICN: Do you think progress is being made?
Amstrup: Yes, I am confident that soon we will observe a sea-change on sentiment about global warming and action to address it. It is coming in fits and starts, but businesses and communities are increasingly seeing the need to address climate change. Ultimately, these grassroots efforts will drag our policy leaders along—even if kicking and screaming. After all, the deniers have children, too. I really don’t believe they will continue to deny a future for those children. (http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120620/qa-steve-amstrup-climate-change-scientist-polar-bears-global-warming-skeptics-meteorologists-greenhouse-gases?page=2)

While reading this chapter and gathering information I came across a few ideas that really hit home for me. One of them was this quote Steve Amstrup said: “Each one has their own personality. They’re not all the same – just like dogs and cats and humans,” says Amstrup.”We have captured a number of young polar bears over the years, and some of them are just like a family pet and some are just chain saws with fur,” he says. (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2012/1019/Steven-Amstrup-says-it-s-not-too-late-to-save-polar-bears-and-ourselves/(page)/3)

Why does that hit home with me? Well, you are about to probably think I am absolutely insane, but I’ll tell you anyways. In my last post I talked about my animal handling training experience at the Phoenix zoo and how it taught me so much. One of the most important things I learned was that all animals have personalities, from Polar bears to Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. That’s right, you heard me! First of all, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches are very different than the house cockroach. They are a lot cleaner and less skiddish. They look a bit different and they actually do hiss when they are scared as a defense. I never had imagined that insects had any personality whatsoever. I mean, other than the obvious, creepy element, but they do. I held a female Roach as well as a male roach and immediately observed a difference. Holding the female was like holding a squirmy child. I placed her on my hand and she was continuously moving, making me nervous. She was slightly smaller than the male and way more skiddish. When I placed the male on my hand, he just sat there, calmly. He was very chill. So, there you go, male Hissing Cockroaches are chill and cool, while females are skiddish and squirmy. Animals always surprise you and all of them are different, even the smallest insects.

Another very important subject discussed by Steve was that of education.

ICN: Besides your effort to help save the polar bear and its habitat, you’ve been praised for your ability to make complex scientific concepts digestible to the general public. Did you come by this ability naturally?
Amstrup: I think one of my greatest strengths always has been recognizing what is important in a cast of problems or issues and being able to simply and elegantly explain and describe it. It was clear to me from my earliest days as a professional biologist that if I could not communicate what I knew to all audiences, it was of little value. So, this sort of communication always has been a focus, but it is not necessarily something I had to practice. That isn’t to say that I don’t learn from my experiences, how to do it better!
ICN: Is education the biggest hurdle in making the threat of climate change known, or is it politics?
Amstrup: I believe it is largely about education. Never before have we seen such a severe example of uninformed opinion being weighed more heavily than the laws of physics and empirical observations.
There has been a significant intentional campaign to mislead the public, and there also has been a failure of scientists and managers to effectively convey the truth and counteract the lies.
The first step in turning things around is information and education delivered in ways everyone can understand. Some always will be so handicapped by their opinions that they cannot entertain facts. We will never reach those, but most people, if we communicate effectively, can be convinced to change their minds. (http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120620/qa-steve-amstrup-climate-change-scientist-polar-bears-global-warming-skeptics-meteorologists-greenhouse-gases?page=2)

And education is why I started writing this blog, why I am going to college, why I volunteer at the zoo. The only way to improve this world is by telling others about these issues and explaining it in a relational way. If the audience can’t relate to the fact that polar bears are going to disappear, or if they can’t understand the concept then they won’t feel the motivation to do anything.At the Phoenix Zoo we play games to help children understand how birds have different beaks that are like different tools, we let people look at and hold a cast of a giraffe skull so they can stare in awe at it’s enormity and uniqueness, and all of this is how people can relate. I truly admire Steve Amstrup for first, discovering what is necessary for polar bears to survive and then, recognizing that for him to change their future he has to educate the publicand in a way that is simple and relatable.

So, that is the first chapter of the book. I will leave you with two more points and a fun picture of Steve.

What can you do?
ICN: Other than stopping or at least slowing climate change, what other measures must be taken to save the polar bear?
Amstrup: My work has shown clearly that without stopping greenhouse gas rise, no other management actions can make a difference. If, however, we mitigate GHG rise, on the ground management like establishing protective zones, etc. can help. The problem is that many have become fixated on the prospect of setting up refuges, establishing critical habitats, regulating hunting, etc. and those topics can become dangerous distractions from the real concern and the only thing that can really save polar bears.
If we allow ourselves to be distracted from the mission of reducing GHG emissions, we surely will become polar bear historians rather than polar bear conservationists.(http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20120620/qa-steve-amstrup-climate-change-scientist-polar-bears-global-warming-skeptics-meteorologists-greenhouse-gases?page=2)

And this quote:”As a conservationist, I cherish the opportunity to be on the front lines in the race to save Earth’s creatures..” p. 5.

_______________________________________________A

Crikey!

So, just a warning to any readers, I messed up a bit in my last post. I will, of course, be writing about Jeff Corwin’s amazing book 100 Heartbeats but, I was wrong about what the book is about. I have read the book, but it has been a couple of years. I will be rereading it for the blog posts, but I just wanted to clear up what Jeff Corwin is outlining in his book. 100 Hearbeats actually refers to “critically endangered species and subspecies that have 100 or fewer individuals alive in the wild today.” I am sure this list has increased since this book came out and some individuals on that list are now extinct from the wild and are therefore not a part of the 100 heartbeat club. Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer prize winner, wrote an article “Vanishing Before Our Eyes” that mentions the 100 Heartbeat Club, something I would like to read and will most likely write a separate blog post about. But Corwin is not writing about the individuals that are a part of that club, he is writing about species that are on the verge of becoming a part of the club and since the debut of this book, are most likely a part of the club today. It will be hard to outline this book in blog posts, so bare with me, though I know it will be a fun adventure to research and learn more about the different conservation efforts and the different species in the book. Hopefully, I will bring light to some very dire situations in this world that need our attention and help.

I am sure you are wondering why I titled this post Crikey! After writing about Jeff Corwin’s childhood and him telling us about the moment he loved animals and the moment he became a conservationists, I thought it would be fun for me to do the same. I think it is almost impossible to choose an exact moment, as there are so many things that have happened in my life that have caused me to have such a passion for wildlife today. I also, did not quite grow up like Corwin and never had much of a chance as a kid to look for snakes and wildlife and track them. I did live in Comoros Islands, Africa for the first four years of my life. Although I cannot remember most of that time, I am positive the Tropical environment and culture we lived in influenced my love for the natural world. In the following sections I will highlight what caused me to develop a passion for wildlife and what moment caused me to want to be a conservationist.

As most of my family and friends know, I am a great admirer of Steve Irwin, the man more commonly known as The Crocodile Hunter. I grew up watching him on t.v. and enjoyed every word he said and action he did. I had always been scared of crocodiles and I certainly did not find them as “beauties” like Steve did, but that all changed when watching his show. Steve was the type of person that would cradle a cry many tears over a crocodile that died at his zoo. He wanted people to see all creatures as important, beautiful, special, especially the reptiles and especially crocodiles. That did it for me. Watching Steve Irwin on t.v. sent me into a passion for wildlife. I loved them all, well…. almost all. I definitely respected crocodiles and I could even call them beautiful. I still had a lot to learn and a lot more to grow personally, but it was Steve who caused me to understand my love for wildlife and that is why he is still my hero.

Now, I am sure there were many moments where I thought, “Conservation is awesome!” and “I have to be a conservationist”, but I decided to choose this moment in particular because it has always stayed with me. I started volunteering at the Phoenix Zoo in 2008, I think that is when it was, six years later, I am still volunteering. But, this story has to do with my beginnings at the zoo. I joined a program called Zoo Teens. It is a great opportunity for all teenagers, where you can help educate guests, work on the farm, work with horses, be an assistant keeper, etc. I chose to become a Trail Teen who were the teens that went out every weekend with tables, activities, biofacts, and animals (when I was volunteering we brought out animals though we no longer do that in the trail teen program) and we spoke to guests about the items on our tables. To handle any animal you had to be trained by someone at the zoo. You can imagine how excited and terrified I was! We knew that we were going to be handling snakes, insects, turtles, and some amphibians. I was pretty much like most people, I didn’t have a great love for snakes, in fact, they kind of made me nervous, and I certainly was not eager to hold a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (cutest Roach ever!), but I had to face my fears and I am so happy I did. There were some rocky points during the training, I accidentally dropped a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach on the table because I hadn’t checked to see if there were any of them hanging on the lid, but the zoo staff member was so forgiving and kind and worked with me to improve. Then we handled snakes. I got to go first with the Black Mexican King Snake, seriously one of the most beautiful snakes I have ever seen, shiny, slick, black, so gorgeous. This one’s name was Javier. They showed us how to take Javier out of his box, after describing the many stress signs we needed to look out for. I remembered the directions, I approached the box, I slowly and gently, ran my finger down Javier’s back showing him I was there and making sure he was comfortable with me touching him. And by the way, snakes are not slimy, they are smooth, they feel awesome. As I could see Javier was calm, I used both my hands to pick him up, holding on to him with very little force. I could feel his muscles as he moved over my arms, wrapping around my fingers, it was incredible! I wasn’t scared he would bite me, because he was just hanging out, not showing any type of fear, stress, or anger. I placed Javier on a board with pegs on it, so he could weave in and out, then after he had some fun on the board, I put him back in the box. The next few teens COULD NOT pick up Javier. He had decided to not let anyone else touch him, he hissed at them, and showed a defensive posture towards them. Of course, once the staff saw he was not okay with being touched they decided he needed a break for the day, ensuring the safety of the teens and anyone else. I always thought, and still do foolishly, that Javier loved me, and didn’t want anyone else to hold him. Of course, that probably isn’t true, but it connected me to him in a way that I had never felt about any animal before. This lead to me loving snakes, adoring them, and that is when I became a conservationist. I knew that I was part of a small minority of people who loved (plenty of them at the zoo though!) snakes, most people find them to be evil, and I felt that it was my job from that day on to convert as many people as I could to the Snake lover club, or the Insect lover club, or any other animal. I was ready to change the world!

This is a Mexican Black King Snake.

This is a Mexican Black King Snake.


And my favorite picture of Steve and his daughter Bindi

And my favorite picture of Steve and his daughter Bindi

100 Heartbeats

Cover of 100 Heartbeats

Cover of 100 Heartbeats


Jeff Corwin’s 100 Hearbeats is a wonderfully beautiful informational book about numerous endangered animals and the conservationists, people, fighting hard to save them. Story after story told is inspiring and each and every animal you learn about just brings about a pain in your heart when you think it may disappear from the earth entirely if nothing is done about it. The book is not exactly formatted in a way where each chapter is about a different animal out of the 100 ones he talks about, but tells a full story about conservation. 100 of the most endangered species are talked about and highlighted, even the ones some may consider less desirable. I plan to write about each of these species in the next 100 posts of my blog. I hope it will interest some people in species that may have been completely unknown to them or get some people excited about species they already loved but maybe weren’t aware were endangered. I’ll start off with quoting quite a large section of the beginning of the book. It is one of my all time favorite sections in any conservation book because it just describes the essence of being a wildlife lover and conservationist.

Jeff Corwin talking about his childhood:

“When I was six years old and on a summer visit to my aunt downstate in Holbrook, I came face-to-face with a creature that I’d never seen before: a garter snake.When this scaly animal uncoiled itself like an unraveling turban and moved its long body deeper into my aunt’s woodpile without the aid of legs, I may as well have been discovering a new life form. And when it slipped back into the stack of firewood as quickly as it had appeared, I panicked.

I picked up the heavy logs and heaved them behind me until the layer of mud and detritus was within reach. And there amid the spiderwebs and the abandoned cocoons, was my new friend. With no preconceived notions to guide me, I reached out and gently grabbed hold of its coiled lower body.  And it did the same, gliding over my wrist and “grabbing” onto my forearm with its upperbody. Scared and exhilarated at the same time, I proudly took it inside, where, naturally, my aunt was less enthusiastic about my discovery. 

‘Get rid of it!’ she screamed.

‘No!’ I shouted.

‘Why?!’

There I was, a trembling, 3-foot-tall city boy utterly ignorant about the wild animal that was wrapped around my arm and inspiring such fear in my aunt. But I answered without hesitation.

‘Because I love it!’

Somehow, amid the mayhem, she pried the snake off my arm and we put it back in the yard.

That was the day I became a naturalist. That was the defining moment when the light came on and I knew what I wanted to do with my life.For the next 2 years, I kept tabs on that snake as she lived her life. I learned about love and passion and birth and predation from her. Eventually, I wouldn’t need to capture her to get an up-close look- I respected her space and she topped fleeing at the sight of me.Snakes are creatures of habit, and at some point, she apparantely this little boy’s presence as routine.

One day, as I watched her bask in the sun 4 feet from where I lay on my belly with my chin resting in my hands, I saw a sharp flash of a medal and a sickening thud. The next thing I knew, she had been ripped into two,  each half of her body flying in opposite directions as she helplessly bit at the air. As the pieces of her hit the ground, they writhed like the severed locks of a Medusa,her agony not quite over. When I looked up from the carnage, I saw the man who lived next door, shovel in hand and a stern, satisfied look on his face.

That was the day I became a conservationist.”

I find that passage so powerful. Powerful, because it rings true and because it uses a common example. Jeff Corwin first connects you to the snake, makes you love it, feel for it, because the beautiful garter snake stayed with Corwin for 2 years. Then, when she was killed, it wasn’t just any snake killed, but Corwin’s friend, just like any pet being killed. Except, it wasn’t just like any pet because people actually think it is wrong to kill dogs and cats, but a snake is evil, scaly, and gross and it makes no difference if it is killed. But, you see, that is why Corwin says that day he became a conservationist, because as a conservationist you want to protect all species, but especially the ones that are undesirable to others, you want to educate people about how awesome snakes can be, how sweet they are, you want people to see the worth in all species, and hopefully do whatever they can to save them from their possible extinction.