Tiny polar bear shines light on big global issues

Ohio’s newest bear cub, Nora, is bringing a ray of hope to conservationists across the world, who are focused on rescuing the quickly dwindling polar bear population.

Born on Nov. 6 at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Nora was the result of careful research and planning. Her parents, Aurora and Nanuq, were paired based on recommendations from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for threatened breeds.

Experts have estimated there are between 22,000 and 25,000 polar bears in the wild. That number is not low enough to qualify them as endangered, but it doesn’t mean they’re safe, either.

Polar bears depend on sea ice, which forms above the open waters where their small prey live, to survive. As global warming continues to make larger impacts worldwide, the ice that serves as a life force for these bears is melting. With no ice, they’re forced to move onto land — a place where they are less protected from hunters, as well as predators that threaten their cubs.

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If this decline continues, experts say polar bears could lose approximately two-thirds of their population by 2050.

In 2008, polar bears became the first vertebrate species to be listed in the U.S Endangered Species Protection Act as threatened primarily due to global warming.

Nora’s impact

So how can one little polar bear cub help out? It’s simpler than you think.

According to Polar Bears International, the biggest impact polar bears in zoos can have on their species is bringing more awareness to their plight.

If you think about it, that totally makes sense. It’s a lot easier to dismiss global warming and its effects on animals that live halfway across the world than it is when you have an adorable little polar bear cub staring you right in the face.

Image: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium/Facebook

Am I right? How can you say no to that face? If you have a heart, you just can’t.

So, by keeping animals like the polar bear on display and educating us about their lives and the threats they face, it’s the hope of most zoos that at least some patrons leave with a little more willingness to do what it takes to help out.

Polar bears in captivity

Zoos have always caught flak from animal lovers who claim that relocating and caging animals is cruel. This is especially true when new births occur in captivity — the Columbus Zoo and Aqaurium received more than its fair share of hate when baby Nora was born.

Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, disagrees. He says the fact that polar bears live longer in captivity than in the wild is proof enough they’re living good lives. He adds that the bears are surrounded by experts who can keep them curious and engaged and around-the-clock veterinarian care, and their meals are literally served on a platter. Basically, they have many reasons to be happy and fulfilled.

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The research conducted at zoos is also responsible for much of science’s current knowledge about wildlife disease and treatment — info that can become increasingly useful to polar bears if their numbers continue to decrease.

Nora’s story

Nora was born in a litter of two, but as is common with polar bears, only one survived the first few days. When she was less than a week old, her mother, Aurora, started taking breaks from caring for her, an act that set her caretakers on high alert. As the day went on, the breaks from her baby cub became longer and longer, so the zoo’s animal care staff declared her abandoned and pulled her from the den.

Image: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium/Facebook

In the months since, the cub has thrived. When she reached two weeks, her caretakers called themselves “cautiously optimistic.” Now, at three months, they report that Nora is doing well and describe her as “a very strong-willed, determined little lady!”

According to Facebook updates from the zoo, she’s growing at a rate of about an inch per week and can now stand and walk on all four legs. You go, little lady!

She’s not available to be viewed by the public yet, as she’s being kept at an animal hospital behind the scenes, but the zoo promises this is the best place for the cub as she receives continuous surveillance and feedings every four hours.

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Even though she’s not yet ready to parade around the public polar bear habitat, this little one has already garnered quite the fan base thanks to social media.

The zoo took an online vote to determine her name and received more than 88,000 votes from 115 countries. The name Nora was revealed on Feb. 5 — of course, via Facebook.

Image: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium/Facebook

The zoo hopes to make Nora viewable to the public by spring but are awaiting her cues to decide when she’s ready. There’s no word yet on whether she’ll be placed in the existing polar bear habitat with the adult bears, including her mother.

Want to learn more about Nora? Watch her first three months of life in under two minutes in this video: