By Philip Molar; February 02, 2017; The San Diego Union Tribune
Snowflake has a date in Pittsburgh.
The 21-year-old female polar bear at SeaWorld San Diego is set to be shipped to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium sometime in the near future for breeding.
It’s not the first time Snowflake has split for Pennsylvania — she went there in 2014 — but now the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is objecting because it says the breeding leads to more polar bears in captivity in much smaller habitats than what is typical in the wild.
“If Snowflake’s babies survive — which is a long shot, given the 65 percent infant-mortality rate for captive polar bears — this is the bleak future that awaits them,” wrote PETA president Ingrid Newkirk in a letter to SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby provided to the Union-Tribune.
SeaWorld says it is participating in a national program to increase the numbers of the threatened polar bear population, which scientists estimate to be from 22,000 to 31,000.
“This polar bear breeding effort keeps SeaWorld and the Pittsburgh Zoo at the forefront of wildlife conservation and education, and further demonstrates our commitment to conserve species in peril,” said David Koontz, SeaWorld spokesman.
Calls and emails to the Pittsburgh Zoo were not returned. PETA was the first to announce the plans, not the zoos. SeaWorld said it has not decided exactly when Snowflake will head East but confirmed she is going.
Polar bears are classified as a “vulnerable” species, on the lower concern scale for endangered species, largely because of a loss of sea ice habitat, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
PETA’s efforts come on the heels of a decision by the California Coastal Commission in 2015 to order SeaWorld to stop breeding killer whales, making the current generation of orcas its last.
SeaWorld has responded by stopping breeding and ending its long-running theatrical Shamu show for a more educational presentation.
PETA’s Newkirk said the orca program was shut down because of “public outrage” and there is a groundswell of people who do not support keeping animals in captivity for entertainment.
She wrote that keeping Snowflake away from her fellow female polar bear, 21-year-old Szenja, is cruel because they have been companions for 20 years. Szenja will stay in San Diego while Snowflake takes place in the breeding effort.
Snowflake was born at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y., and came to San Diego in 1997, said her SeaWorld bio.
Snowflake and Szenja were sent to the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2014 for six months to mate with 9-year-old Koda, said The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. SeaWorld said Koda will again be the partner for Snowflake.
When the 2014 effort was unsuccessful, SeaWorld and the Cincinnati Zoo artificially inseminated Snowflake in 2015, SeaWorld said. The donor was a polar bear at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
SeaWorld produced a video of the failed artificial insemination that has been posted on YouTube. Female polar bears can give birth to one to three cubs at a time, but Snowflake has yet to conceive.
In the video, Justine O’Brien from the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center, said because polar bears are threatened, it is important for researchers to learn as much about their biology as possible to help conserve them.
“This information is also helpful for managing the zoo population as well as understanding what’s going on in the wild,” she said, “and if there are any issues with reproductive function that could be occurring to stresses that we see on those wild populations.”
PETA also took issue with the Pittsburgh Zoo no longer being accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the nation’s oldest accrediting organization for zoos and aquariums that sets policies on animal welfare.
The Pittsburgh Zoo said in a news release in August 2015 that they were leaving the organization following disagreements over a policy to limit zookeepers’ contact with elephants. In 2002, a keeper was crushed to death at the zoo by an elephant during a planned exercise walk, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But, SeaWorld said it had no concern about the Pittsburgh Zoo, noting it was certified by the American Humane Association. The association says on its website it is the world’s largest certifier of animal welfare.
“The Pittsburgh Zoo is an excellent zoological facility with a state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit,” Koontz said. “The staff provides only the highest quality care and enrichment to all of its animals, including its polar bears.”
SeaWorld describes Snowflake as fun and playful. A video on YouTube shows her knocking around a barrel and rolling in snow.
The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund in January awarded $15,000 to Polar Bears International to support research for long-term population monitoring.
There are no male polar bears at SeaWorld San Diego. The last one, Charley, died in January 2012 after living at the park for more than 15 years.
Polar bears can live into their late 30s in captivity and 15 to 18 years in the wild, said Polar Bears International.