In Canada, misbehaving polar bears go to jail

On October 4, 2022 Chantal Cadger Maclean, a conservation officer in Churchill, Canada, received a name: A polar bear had damaged into somebody’s shed on the sting of city. A teenage feminine, she had been circling the city’s borders for a number of days trolling for meals. However now Maclean and several other different members of Churchill’s Polar Bear Patrol staff discovered her standing within the shed’s doorway, munching away. This was a foul improvement. “Sadly, that bear goes to affiliate buildings with meals rewards any more,” says Maclean—which may lead her to folks’s properties. “Meaning it’s instantly labeled as a bear we have to chemically immobilize and put into the polar bear holding facility.”

Immobilizing a 500-pound animal that may run on uneven terrains or disguise amongst rocks takes a joint land and air effort. Hanging out off the facet of the helicopter with a dart gun, Maclean’s work companion Ian van Nest, gave the ivory fugitive a shot of telazol, a quick-acting anesthetic. The on-the-ground staff was prepared with vans and ATVs, however the bear received out of attain. “It took two-ish minutes for this bear to really feel the consequences of that drug,” says Maclean, however she managed to get onto the opposite facet of an enormous berm the place no autos may attain her. The staff needed to retrieve the issue lady on foot utilizing a “polar bear stretcher,” primarily an enormous board. “Seven of us carried this 500-pound bear over the berm and put it into the again of our truck,” says Maclean. “After which we drove it to the polar bear holding facility.”

After spending two weeks in Churchill’s polar bear jail, a helicopter carries this tranquilized younger grownup bear 40 miles out of city. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/GETTY IMAGES)

That’s simply one other day in polar bear nation. A frontier settlement based for fur buying and selling in 1717, Churchill sits smack within the center of the “polar bear freeway”—the pure path the animals take to get onto the ocean ice yearly. Situated on the shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill has round 850 human residents and about the identical variety of bears roaming round. Throughout the winter, the bears dwell on the frozen bay, searching seals. However as soon as the ice melts in July, they transfer onto land the place meals is scarce. “They dwell off the fats shops they amassed over winter whereas consuming seals’ blubber,” explains Rachel Sullivan-Lord, a marine biologist and expedition chief with Pure Habitat Adventures, an organization that operates polar bear excursions within the space. “In the direction of the tip of November, they arrive to shore, ready for the bay to freeze. By then they’ve been with out searching alternatives for a number of months, so they’re ravenous. They’ll use any likelihood to get meals.”

That annual passage makes Churchill a novel place for vacationers to observe the Kings of the Arctic of their pure habitat—so up shut and private that the creatures come as much as the Tundra Lodge, a seasonal wildlife-watching lodge, and get up on their hind legs to peek on the folks inside. However it additionally makes Churchill a harmful place to dwell. Maclean remembers a current name she received when a bear was pounding on a lady’s window at 5 a.m. within the morning. “It’s the worst place for a city to be,” she says. “At this time, we might by no means put a city right here.”

Years in the past, a bear smacking on the window or breaking a door would probably be shot to keep away from potential human fatalities. However over time, that mentality has modified, influenced by vacationers’ curiosity within the majestic creatures and by the truth that there aren’t many left. Solely about 20,000 to 26,000 polar bears stay within the wild, says Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear Worldwide, a nonprofit group that works to protect the animals. In line with a current Canadian authorities report, the polar bear inhabitants has dropped 27 p.c over the previous 5 years. With much less and fewer sea ice forming yearly, the bears have much less time to hunt seals and construct up vital fats shops, leaving many bears to face hunger. At this time, Churchill’s Polar Bear Alert program retains an in depth tab on the hungry prowlers, placing them behind bars and out of hurt’s manner solely when completely vital.

a man standing in front of some rocks.

In August 2022, Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bear Worldwide, visited Churchill. York’s work typically focuses on lowering battle between folks and polar bears. (OLIVIER MORIN/GETTY IMAGES)

Colloquially generally known as the polar bear jail, the holding facility is an enormous hangar of 28 cells constructed from cinder blocks with metal bar ceilings and doorways. A second set of stable steel doorways prevents bears from reaching out between bars. Most cells match just one bear (in any other case they’d combat) however two bigger cells are reserved for mothers with cubs. 5 of the cells are air-conditioned to make them extra snug throughout hotter climate. Some bears are tranquilized after they’re introduced in. Others arrive awake in large culverts, traps baited with a bit of seal meat that snap shut as soon as bears pull on the meals.

Constructed within the Fifties when Churchill was a military base, this facility is completely distinctive, York says. Solely the army may ship and fly sufficient materials to assemble a constructing that dimension and energy in such a distant, inhospitable place. “It will be very costly to create and construct one thing that dimension and with the performance that they’ve there,” he says. “Having that facility has allowed managers to maintain bears within the inhabitants that in any other case would have been euthanized with out the choice of holding them till the ocean ice was reforming,” he says. As a substitute of taking pictures the damaging bears, the patrol staff holds them for a number of weeks till the bay freezes.

That’s precisely what occurred to Maclean’s she-bear burglar. Nonetheless asleep, she was weighed and measured from the tip of the nostril to the tip of the tail. She acquired an ear tag for future identification and a lip tattoo as a backup as a result of bears generally lose their ears in fights. The tags assist the staff determine tough bears sooner or later. Then the issue teen was transferred right into a cell, the place she finally awoke.

The jail surroundings teaches the animals that approaching people ends in a boring and annoying expertise, not price repeating. That’s why bears don’t get to do a lot of their cells. They’ll perambulate backwards and forwards among the many cinderblocks or lounge on straw bedding or wooden shavings. They’ll bang on the partitions, which is often an excellent signal, says Maclean. “If we don’t hear from a bear, we might often peek in on it,” she says. “However a bear that’s banging is often an excellent, wholesome bear.”

Whereas “imprisoned,” bears get water or snow by means of a trough that runs throughout their cells, however no snacks—to keep away from associating people with meals. “At that time, they’re already fasting,” explains Maclean, plus they’re not spending as a lot power as they’d be out within the tundra. “They’re dropping virtually the very same weight that they’d be in the event that they have been out on the land,” York says. “In order that they’re having a really comparable expertise by way of fasting that they’d in the event that they weren’t in a facility.”

a group of polar bears walking across a rocky beach.

A polar bear and her two cubs enterprise out onto the ocean ice to spend their winter searching seals. Bears like these can eat as much as 100 kilos of seal blubber in a single sitting. (EMMA BISHOP/CC BY 2.0)

“Sentencing” bears is a final resort. Usually, the staff tries to haze a bear out of city with empty photographs and firecrackers. But when the animal doesn’t depart, retains coming again, or begins breaking into buildings, the staff has to lock it up. “We solely do proactive capturing after we know the choice is worse,” says Maclean. “The choice is the bear will get euthanized. So as a substitute of letting it get to that time, we seize the bear.”

Most bears keep within the lockup for 30 days or till the bay freezes. As quickly because the ice varieties, they’re free to go—an annual spectacle most of the city’s residents come to see. Loaded into the culverts, the bears are introduced over to the ice and the entice doorways are lifted, setting them free one after the other. The staff drives a truck in the direction of every bear, nudging it to move in the direction of the ice. In 2022, there have been solely 5 inmates launched when the bay froze. All of the freed bears fortunately wandered off onto the ice, hungry for his or her long-awaited dinner.

The shed-breaking teen was amongst them. “She is out making a residing now,” Maclean says. “She’s doing what bears do—searching seals.”

This article initially appeared on Atlas Obscura, the definitive information to the world’s hidden marvel. Join Atlas Obscura’s publication.

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