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Polar Bears in Zoos Threatened by Argentinian Heatwave

Tucked away in the northern Andes region of Argentina, Mendoza is advertised as an exclusive destination for wine connoisseurs and gourmet tourism. Temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summer, a condition which agrees perfectly with the celebrated Malbec grape that draws millions of tourists from around the globe to wander the wine route, looking for the picture-perfect Instagram snapshot of bon-vivant living.

However, it might not be such an idyllic scenario for a polar bear. Arturo is a 29-year old polar bear, born in captivity in the United States that has inhabited the arid region of mid-western Argentina for the past 20 years as the only polar bear of the local Mendoza Zoo. Autochthonous to the Artic, polar bears are “designed” to conserve heat, their bodies trained by evolution to endure temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Last year, Winner, another bear kept by the Buenos Aires Zoo, made it to the news when he died of hyperthermia shock during a heat wave.  

The only public statement made by the zoo at the time was to say they would not be replacing the bear. This year, another heat wave struck Argentina and local animal right activists mobilized to stop the story from repeating itself. Arturo’s insalubrious confinement and precarious living conditions were filmed and made public. The unbelievable images show how the institution’s only resource for fighting the heat seems to be spraying water on the animal with a garden hose.

As Arturo went viral, Gabriel Flores from the activist group ECOLógicos, managed to collect nearly 140.000 signatures petitioning that Arturo be transferred to a safer environment, with at least similar characteristics to those of his natural habitat. The local media picked up the news and the group’s Facebook page has now more than 8.000 followers. The cover photo is a shot of the bear, exhausted by the heat, and the disarming question: “What part of polar don’t you understand?”

Maria Fernanda Arentsen, a Spanish professor at CUSB, in Manitoba, happened to catch one of the videos posted by the activists and got in touch with a Canadian conservation institution. “I am from Mendoza, so I know how hot the summer can be. Especially when there is a wind, called Zonda, that comes from the mountains and it is very dry.” she said to Canstar Community News.

Don Peterkin, from Assiniboine Park Zoo made contact with the Mendoza Zoo officials offering to cover all expenses involved in relocating Arturo to his new Canadian home in November. Local media reports that the Mendoza Zoo initially responded by extending an invitation to their Canadian counterparts to visit Arturo, which was later followed by an unexplainable retraction. After almost a 3-month period of talks, local zoo officials have finally agreed to the relocation provided that a medical examination guarantees that Arturo will be able to cope with the stress of the long distance flight.

Activists continue to protest in Mendoza’s sleepy main square, distributing pamphlets and putting up signs to raise awareness within the community.

This may be one of those rare cases where the sheer outrageousness of the living conditions the bear has been subjected to makes it impossible for public opinion to turn its back on the protest and dismiss it as another example of radicalized activist antics. When worst comes to worst, nobody wants to see a polar bear die.

However, independently of how easy it is to obtain “likes” on a Facebook page in sympathy for such a “disneyfied” creature as a polar bear, one is left to wonder how much of the underlying issue of animal objectification is really being questioned.

Much like in darker times of history when Native Americans were captured and put on display in European courts, the core concept around which the traditional zoo as an institution is built legalizes the inherent violence implicit in animal captivity.

While the Mendoza zoo seems to embody one of the most explicit scenarios of the politically incorrect, the question seems to become blurrier under more “photoshopped” circumstances.

How many of Arturo’s Facebook “friends” are also avid consumers of captive animal shows at fancy marine theme parks? How many of them consider it a perk of the globalized world they live in to get to see an African Jaguar without having to splurge on airfare?

Presently, Arturo’s future remains uncertain. Specialists have assessed Arturo’s medical conditions last week and decided he is unfit to travel. No official statements have been released by the zoo yet.

Laura Falgione

Travel editor, Patagonia enthusiast and hopeless believer in the power of words to change everything.

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2 Responses

  1. I tried to sign the petition, but wouldn’t work on my iPad. I hope my signature will count. This is one of the saddest things I’ve heard in a long time, and so unnessesary!

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