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wpe2.gif (131632 bytes)The image of the captive bear, chained by the ankle, muzzled and teetering on two legs for the pleasure of the crowd, is one that seems to be ingrained in our collective memories. Bears have been captured and made to perform since the days when the brown bear shared most of Europe with us.  European bears were often trapped for the circuses in ancient Rome, and for most of recorded history the bear has been a popular animal only so long as it was chained and humiliated, and unpopular enough to slaughter wherever it roamed wild.

Has anything changed? Critics of circuses and zoos would argue not. Bears are still rather shabbily treated in many collections, are often kept in pits or concrete cells totally unsuited to their behavioural demands. It seems that many zoos are still prejudiced by the incarnation of the performing bear rather than by the wild, magnificent animal.

Several species of bears are kept in zoos. Sadly the European brown bear is now rarely seen, although some zoos have the North American brown bear, and some keep hybrid bears whose subspecific origin is no longer really known. The Asiatic black bear, recognisable by the cream coloured v-shape on its chest, and the South American spectacled bear with its notable face markings are also kept in several zoos. All these bears are essentially forest dwelling omnivores. They need room to roam, trees to climb, pools to swim, caves to hide in.  Zoos like Prague have good wooded areas for bears to roam and explore.

In 1988 there were eighteen polar bears in United Kingdom zoos. By 1992 there were ten (two adults and two recent cubs at Edinburgh, a single male at Chester, two at Chessington and three at Belfast). Nina and Misha, the two bears who once drew huge crowds at Bristol Zoo, were put down in January 1992. Ten bears is a small number when compared to the the world captive population of more than 400, but nonetheless British zoos have come under more attack for their keeping of polar bears than of any other animal. Polar bears are the largest terrestrial carnivores. Their wild status is classified as vulnerable, and although bans on commercial hunting have led to an increase in the wild population, a good case can still be made for keeping a reservoir population in captivity. Unfortunately, British zoos do not have a good record of breeding this species, or of raising young bears to adulthood.

Several factors are believed to be important in breeding polar bears. They need a small dark den which will mimic the maternity den that a wild she-bear will dig in the snow. Not every zoo provides such a den. Once cubs are born they must be completely undisturbed. A disturbed mother may kill her cubs. There has been a suggestion, that British winter temperatures may not fall low enough to encourage breeding, but more important may be a period of fasting to correspond with a similar period experienced by a wild she-bear.

There have been polar bears born in British zoos; Edinburgh Zoo has made considerable capital out of its recent ‘Wee Sweetie’ and its most recent cub was born in 1992; but an average of around one bear a year needs to be born and raised to sustain existing numbers. At present this is not being achieved.

Another problem experienced by many European zoos is the stereotypic pacing and head-weaving displayed by several bears. This type of behaviour is distressing to watch, and although it does little for the reputation of zoos to keep animals that behave in this way, few zoos seem to have any idea how it might be avoided. The problem does seem to be more prevalent in bears that are born or kept in a pit, and it may be associated with the frustrated desire to look out. There has been a recent suggestion that the problem might relate to toothache; or it may be simply due to boredom, and there is no doubt that most polar bear enclosures are small and dull when compared to the cages of other large carnivores.

Polar bears were once among the most popular animals in zoos. Today they are increasingly seen by the zoos themselves as an embarrassment, and it seems likely that by the end of the century there may be very few left. This has been a notable victory for organisations like Zoo Check, who first drew attention to the plight of the bears. Disappointingly, few zoos have tried to introduce radical new accommodation for the bears. So, given our poor record with these bears, their departure must be a welcome one.


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