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VIDEO: San Diego Zoo exhibit offers closer look at polar bears, global warming

Polar bears’ natural habitat may be dwindling, but three bears are gaining ground — and political attention — at the San Diego Zoo.

On March 26, the zoo will reopen its Polar Bear Plunge exhibit with new purpose: to educate the public about the climate changes that are threatening this species’ survival as well as our own.

Polar Bear Plunge is currently home to three grown polar bears: Chinook, a 15-year-old female who was found orphaned in Canada, and her nine-year-old brother and sister, Kalluk and Tatqiq, whose mother was shot in Alaska when they were cubs.

The renovated exhibit will feature new interactive and educational displays all aimed to teach visitors about the effects of global warming. The displays include a “measure up” area — with life-size statues of a 30-day-old cub, a one- to two-year-old juvenile and an adult male — a snow den, a research helicopter and a refrigerator packed with 140 pounds of seal meat, known at the zoo as dinner for one.

Perhaps the most interesting addition is what the zoo is calling “the world’s first moveable experience wall.” At various times of day, a glass panel will be removed from this wire mesh wall, allowing zoo keepers to interact with the bears and give guests the opportunity to experience the relationship between trainer and polar bear firsthand and be closer to the animals than ever before.

“Being so close in proximity, they are going to see, smell and hear these bears,” said Rick Schwartz, ambassador for the Zoological Society of San Diego and senior animal keeper at the San Diego Zoo. “I have had an opportunity to work with our bears at the Polar Bear Plunge and it’s amazing just to see how big and strong [the bears] are, but then how gentle they can be.”

Despite its obvious entertainment value, zoo leaders hope the reconstruction will ultimately spark a conversation about the serious issues facing these animals.

“We have really taken the position that we want to teach people what is going on, but we don’t want to hit them over the head with it,” Schwartz said.

Though the $1 million remodel was not immediately necessary, Schwartz said scientists and zoo officials believed it was time to take a stance on the issue and use the information they have to promote awareness for wildlife conservation.

According to Schwartz, Polar Bear Plunge was originally built in 1996 and still remains one of the best exhibits in the nation for polar bears.

“When [the exhibit] was first built, there was no concern for polar bear habitat,” Schwartz said. “Everything was fine and the numbers were stable. In the short 13 or 14 years since then, a lot has happened to polar bear habitat. We felt it was our responsibility to update what our guests are going to experience and learn while visiting our polar bears.”

Turns out that zoo-goers will likely get a dose of environmental politics.

Though Schwartz believes what is happening to the polar bears’ climate is undeniable, he said many scientists are still torn on the issue.

“Eighty-four percent of scientists feel that [global warming] is human-caused or increased by human behavior,” Schwartz said. “The remaining almost 20 percent of scientists that feel that it’s just part of the natural cycle.”

While the zoo will not commit to a stance on the political spectrum, their message is quite clear: Regardless of the cause, something is affecting the polar bears’ habitat and will continue to threaten their lives.

“Climate change is creating a situation where the ice that the bears rely on forms much later than it should and disappears much earlier than it should,” Schwartz said.

Unlike omnivorous bear species, like Grizzly bears, polar bears are strict meat eaters, Schwartz said. As the Arctic kingdom melts away, the bears’ food sources begin to disappear as well, often leaving them with no options but death.

“[Polar bears have] been documented eating grass in the tundra — it passes right through them,” Schwartz said. “It’s more of something to take away the hunger pains than something that can give them satiation and proper calories for existence.”

Despite the bleak outlook, zoo officials stress that it’s not too late for humans to make environmentally healthy changes.

One of the most efficient ways to do that, Schwartz said, is for people to take a look at their carbon emissions, or what’s commonly known as a carbon footprint. A person’s carbon footprint is determined by factors such as travel, consumption, natural gas use, electric use, heat and recycling. A carbon footprint calculator can be found on the Zoo’s Web site.

Patrons can also support wildlife conservation by adopting a polar bear or one of the zoo’s many other animals, like an African elephant, giant panda or cheetah. Depending on the adoption program, donations will be used to support an enrichment program for the animals or be given to a conservation fund. The San Diego Zoo is a nonprofit organization that relies solely on memberships and donations, Schwartz said.

“Our goal is really just to make sure that we can offer the information that we know to our guests and make sure that if they want to be a part of conservation and want to take steps with us, they’re welcome to and we can show them how,” Schwartz said. “If not, hopefully they’ll at least enjoy themselves as they wander around the zoo and all the animals of the world that we have there.”

Jennifer Reed is SDNN’s living editor. She can be reached at jennifer.reed@sdnn.com.