Warmer winters and their fuzzy victims

January 05, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The polar bear Magnet was floating on his back in his pool at the Maryland Zoo yesterday, flipping over at each end like a swimmer doing laps. Several winding paths over, the tropical flamingos, atop impossibly thin legs, waded in their own pool. A cherry tree had blossomed.

Everyone - from flora to fauna to human - seemed to be basking in another spring-like January day. "Gorgeous," a woman said as she headed to one of the zoo's golf carts. "Scary gorgeous," an employee responded. "I know," the woman said, "global warming."

I can already hear the counter-arguments: The unseasonably warm winter we've been having isn't necessarily a sign that the globe is warming up. One or two degrees mean nothing on a planet that has been through ice ages and other weather extremes during its long history. And besides, it's cows emitting methane and not our beloved sport utility vehicles emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that is causing the bulk of global warming.

There will be those who continue to deny global warming, maybe even to the point when enough polar ice caps and glaciers have melted and sent floodwaters into their once-inland homes.

But recently, even the Bush administration, which has long dragged its heels on the subject of global warming, took a step - without admitting it took a step - toward acknowledging that there might be something to this crazy thing that Al Gore and countless scientists have been harping about. Last week, it proposed adding polar bears to the list of threatened species because the animals' "habitat may literally be melting," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.

Kempthorne refused to blame global warming for this - although many experts have - saying such an assessment is beyond the scope of his department's process for determining whether a species is threatened. Still, the fact that he acknowledged the threat posed to the bears by thinning and receding arctic ice - which the animals use as a platform for nabbing their primary food source, the ringed seal - is a start.

Finally: a fuzzy-wuzzy mascot, a gift shop-ready poster animal, to put its adorable face on the complicated issue of global warming.

"Polar bears are very charismatic animals," said Kathy Foat, the Maryland Zoo's education director. "They're cute."

For the past several years, Foat and other zoo personnel have partnered with a nonprofit group, Polar Bears International, to take local youngsters up to Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay in Canada, to see the animals in the wild. It is the 22 percent decline of the polar bear population on Hudson Bay that the Interior Department cited as one of the reasons to consider labeling them threatened.

"The [climate] changes are happening so fast," Foat said, "that the animals can't keep up with it."

Melting ice shortens the hunting season for the bears, and scientists fear they're not getting their fill of seal blubber - and, among other things, reduced weights threaten the ability of mothers to reproduce and raise cubs. Additionally, as the ice shrinks, the bears have to swim longer distances, in more open and choppier waters, to get to land or the next ice floe, and some have drowned.

"People there told us the Hudson Bay is melting earlier than it should," said Candace Brown, 16, of Essex, who was one of two area students picked to participate in the polar bear expedition. Candace, a student at Baltimore Lutheran School, returned home determined to do her part to conserve energy and reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, and has been giving presentations to whatever classes will have her.

"Maybe in 50 years, the polar bears won't be there," she said, "and people should care. They're beautiful creatures."

She volunteers at the local zoo, where the Polar Bear Watch is one of the most popular exhibits. It's quiet there these days, with the zoo closed this month and next. Magnet is gamboling about alone these days - his mate, Alaska, delivered a stillborn cub last month, and is in seclusion but probably will probably rejoin Magnet next week. (Just in time for the spring mating season, which Foat says unfortunately coincides with the peak time for school group visits.)

While Magnet and Alaska are safe from the perils of global warming - as longtime zoo animals, they've adapted to warmer climes by developing thinner coats and less blubbery physiques, and of course they don't need ice floes to hunt for their next meal - their keepers say they can serve as ambassadors for their brethren in the wild.

"Here," said Colleen Baird, an exhibit supervisor at the zoo, "is where you can fall in love with them."

Once hooked, you'll then see a new display that the zoo has planned, about global warming, polar bears and you.


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