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I live about an hour’s drive for Yorkshire Wildlife Park which is home to England’s only polar bears. As a result, when I end up chatting about zoos in the office the conversation inevitably comes round to “do you think it is okay to keep a polar bear in a zoo?”. For me, it depends on where the zoo is, how engaging the enclosure is, the quality of the enrichment and the source of the bear in the first place. There just isn’t a simple yes or no answer.

Location of the zoo

The first thing people say when talking about whether to keep a polar bear in a zoo is that polar bears live on ice and a zoo just wouldn’t be cold enough. The thing to know is that when you see a video of a polar bear on ice, you are typically looking at winter or spring in the artic. Film crews like to film polar bears on ice because you can get closer in a boat than you can on land (think about whether you’d rather be 20m away from a polar bear charging across open ground at 25mph or 20m away from a polar bear swimming at about 5mph!).

In the summer the polar bears will move down to northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Norway – basically the land that surrounds the North Pole. These still aren’t the warmest places but they can have a strong midsummer temperatures in the high 20s and an average summer temperature in the teens. This isn’t actually that far away from what we have in the UK. Another interesting fact is that when it gets warmer, the polar bears lose some of their body fat so are more comfortable in the higher average temperatures than their wild counterparts.

The polar bear enclosure

I don’t believe any large mammal should be kept inside its whole life. This isn’t a sciency thing, this is just a gut feeling about how we should treat animals. But in areas which are too warm for polar bears, such as Florida, the animals are kept indoors all year round. When you’ve seen pictures (or real-live bears) living indoors where the temperature can be artificially controlled you just feel icky inside.

In the wild, polar bears roam for thousands of miles. The zoo people among you will point out that they are only walking that far to find food and if you gave them a plentiful source in one location, they would stay put of their own volition. This is true up to a point but you still have to take into account these are large animals that need a good bit of space. You’re going to want to have more than one (see enrichment below) and each bear is going to need a space for itself including its own shade area in the summer. Hot bears can be cranky bears and cranky bears fight.

The other key thing the enclosure needs to have is a very area for swimming. This serves two main functions. One, polar bears have evolved to swim and so to keep a polar bear in good psychological condition, its needs to be able to do a proper swim, not just dunk. Two, a nice deep lake will stay cool in the summer, which, along with shady areas, will keep the bears a bit more comfortable in the event of any heat waves.

Enrichment

The best thing you can give a captive polar bear is a friend. Whilst on documentaries you see polar bears going it alone, in captivity they appear much happier if they can have contact with another bear. The social structure of polar bears is still not well understood but researchers have found that male polar bears will form strong bonds with other male polar bears – they may not live together for years but when they do meet the interactions are much friendlier than with a brand new polar bear. Some male and female bears will play when they meet, they’ll sleep close (even though they don’t need to for warmth) and siblings will stick together for a long time even when they’ve left mum.

Enrichment is all about trying to keep the mind of the polar bears healthy. Every zoo will have its own way of doing this but a common theme is that you either need to be introducing new experiences to the bear (ice blocks, new scents, brightly coloured objects,…) or you need to be trying to stimulate natural behaviour such as foraging or exploration.

Origins

I’ll start with the easy bit. I don’t think anyone is ever going to argue we should be snatching polar bears out of the wild. Taking animals from the wild can be a difficult subject and a future blog post may discuss the merits of breeding programmes and saving animals from habitat loss.

It isn’t that simple though… As the human population continues to expand we will begin to encroach on polar bear territories. A mum and cubs might just move somewhere else but a big territorial male is going to want to take his land back. In the real world you won’t be able to move the town so you have to choose between killing the bear (the most common option) or rehoming the bear. I don’t know the survival rate for moving bears in the wild vs rehoming them into a zoo but I think this is one area where science should lead.

What about if a mother dies and leaves her cubs behind? Those cubs will never learn to survive in the wild so a zoo may be their only option for life. Some may think it kinder to kill them but, if you have a great enclosure, I’m not so sure. Finally, you can get polar bears from other zoos.

In the future…

I think we should be reducing the number of polar bears in captivity and, where possible, moving them to world-class enclosures closer to their home range. We should be supporting zoos who put a lot of time and money into creating large, natural exhibits and getting polar bears out of indoor facilities and warmer climates.

Here is a link to Yorkshire Wildlife Park who have a fantastic enclosure.

Here is a link to Bear Conservation which I think had a really well-balanced view on bears in captivity

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