Around the world, the polar bear is a symbol of Canada, along with beavers, mounted police and maple syrup. So people are often surprised to find out that prior to the mid -1990s, polar bears were dumped into foreign zoos with little regard for their welfare.
The bears came from Churchill, Manitoba, the self-proclaimed “polar bear capital of the world.” The Churchill town site lies in the middle of an area where polar bears have historically gathered each year while they wait for the Hudson Bay pack ice to form. Once it does, they move out onto the ice to hunt seals.
Some of the adult bears that repeatedly entered the town site or a larger area around the town known as the Primary Control Zone were designated as problem bears and became candidates for capture and shipment to zoos around the world. Orphaned cubs could also be caught and face the same fate.
For years, the Government of Manitoba claimed the exported bears were ambassadors for Manitoba and the north. They said they were all sent to good homes. And, because no one checked, they got away with it.
After learning about the exports, Zoocheck launched an investigation that involved visits to zoos around the world. That investigation found many of the exported bears ended up in horrendously bad conditions. Some died of disease or neglect. A Canadian bear in the Taipei Zoo in Taiwan was one of them. An undiagnosed skin condition, presumably climate induced, caused severe hair loss and extensive scabbing of the skin. The poor bear looked more like a rat than a polar bear and the itchiness of the condition caused her to rub her forelegs raw. After years of suffering, she eventually died.
The Taipei bear wasn’t alone in her misery. We found Canadian bears languishing in the heat of Beijing, a young bear in a Mexican zoo confined off-exhibit because his leg had been amputated, and three Canadian bears who endured the insufferable heat of Latin America and the Carribbean for years in a traveling circus.
The rest of the bears ended up pacing back and forth in undersized grotto-style zoo displays in Canada, the US and elsewhere.
In recent years, polar bears have become highly controversial animals, both in the wild and in captivity. There’s good reason for this.
With massive changes to the Arctic pack ice, and much more in future, caused by global climate change, wild bears face serious challenges to their survival.
The challenges of captivity are different but just as formidable to the individual bears who endure it. As the widest ranging terrestrial carnivores on earth (with home ranges measuring from 2,300 sq km to nearly 600,000 sq km), they need enormous amounts of space. As intelligent animals, they need high levels of stimulation and as a northern species, uniquely adapted to arctic environments, they need a cold climate. These are all things they rarely, if ever, get in a zoo.
That’s a major reason why captive polar bears are almost always seen pacing back and forth, swinging their heads from side to side. These behaviours, called stereotypies (meaningless repetitive movements), are never seen in the wild. Equally abnormal are the polar bears who just sit, lie or sleep their lives away. One study found polar bears in zoos were inactive 70% of the time.
A 2003 paper in the prestigious scientific publication Nature revealed that wide-ranging animals (such as polar bears) show the most evidence of stress and/or psychological disfunction in captivity. I’ve seen polar bears in zoos around the world, so I know just how true that is.
Zoocheck’s investigation exposed the Manitoba polar bear export program facade in the late 1990s and it stopped. New policies were put in place and then in 2002 the Polar Bear Protection Act was passed. The Act stipulates that only orphaned cubs under two years of age are to be considered for zoo placement and that zoos must satisfy a set of housing and husbandry standards before they can be considered a potential polar bear recipient. As minimal as the Act’s standards were (and still are), most zoos didn’t meet them.
But there’s now a strong push by the zoo industry and its supporters to once again take bears from Churchill and send them to zoos in Canada, the US and elsewhere.
There’s no doubt that zoos want polar bears because they believe they boost attendance. Even they say that. But there may be another reason they want the bears.
Polar bears are an icon in the global effort to deal with climate change. The incarceration of polar bears in cages is almost always followed by zoo claims that the bears are helping to spread the word about climate change and that the zoo visitors who view them are miraculously affected and changed. Zoos are using polar bears to position themselves as green institutions devoted to enviromentalism and conservation.
Right now, zoos all over the world are spending tens of millions of dollars to retrofit old, or to construct new, polar bear displays. Unfortunately, most of them are grossly undersized, modernized versions of the old concrete grotto exhibits.
And the bears are still stereotyping. In the Toronto Zoo’s new polar bear exhibit, constructed at a reported cost of $10 million, the bears still pace back and forth, and in the Kansas City zoo’s new multi-million dollar display, the bears swim repetitively, another abnormal behaviour common in the world of captive polar bears.
Last year, the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba received $31 million from the Manitoba government. They’re now in the process of constructing a new Arctic complex, complete with a polar bear exhibit and something they’re calling the International Polar Bear Conservation Center (IPBCC).
The idea is to keep up to six polar bears on display in Winnipeg with additional bears, “rescued” (aka “captured”) from the wild, going to the IPBCC “transition” center. They say they’ll accept bears from other facilities, but they’re quite willing to accept wild cubs and adult bears from northern Manitoba and elsewhere.
Apparently, the transition center bears are to be “rehabilitated” and then sent to other zoos. But removing an animal from the wild so they can spend the remainder of their life in captivity isn’t really a rescue and it certainly isn’t rehabilitation, at least not by any conventional definition of the terms.
The fact is that zoos want polar bears. So zoos in Canada, the US and elsewhere have jumped on board and are supportive of the plan. In fact, a number of US zoos have already stated that they hope to get polar bear cubs from Manitoba.
There are other supporters as well. One wildlife group claims bears in captivity are great ambassadors (we’ve heard that before), that they help encourage people to adopt climate-friendly behaviours and that one day a captive population of polar bears may play a role in repopulating the north.
Of course, most of it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Once a good portion of the Arctic ice, which polar bears need to hunt seals, has melted away, it could take hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years to come back (assuming of course that the causes of climate change have been dealt with). Anyone who thinks captive polar bears could be returned to the wild after even a fraction of that time is dreaming.
The sad reality for polar bears is that with the diminishment of the Arctic ice pack there will be a significant reduction in their numbers, possibly up to two thirds of the existing global population. Few experts believe polar bears are threatened with extinction in the wild, but there does seem to be consensus about their numbers dropping substantially, and, at this point, there’s not much that can be done to stop it.
So, why on earth have zoos and their supporters waited so long? During the past 30 years, tens of thousands of papers and articles have been written about climate change, hundreds of books have been produced, thousands of television news pieces and dozens of documentaries, including the Academy Award winner An Inconvenient Truth, have been made. Today, most experts now believe that climate change is irreversible, that it’s occurring faster than anyone ever thought possible and that all we can do is try to mitigate the damage.
After thirty years of publications; after the climate change discussion is thoroughly entrenched in the public consciousness; after the debate is over and the effects are irreversible, only then do zoos and their supporters jump on the climate change bandwagon and they want to do it on the backs of polar bears.
Unfortunately, a lot of what zoos and their supporters say sounds good to people who don’t know any better. Those people don’t know there’s no proof that people looking at caged bears gain any understanding of the scope and intensity of the threats facing wildlife and wild places or that there’s no proof that the viewers of caged bears change their behaviour in any meaningful way.
It’s clear that zoos exploit polar bears to attract visitors and then claim they’re doing the bears a favour. But whether they do that to Manitoba bears is up to the Province of Manitoba.
Manitoba’s Polar Bear Protection Act says that anyone wanting a polar bear must acquire a permit. In theory, zoos can only get a permit for “legitimate” education, conservation or scientific reasons. But it appears the zoos have never had to prove they make a real contribution in any of those areas. Whatever they’ve said has just been accepted as fact.
Zoos also have to satisfy the Polar Bear Protection Act captivity standards, but those standards are now outdated, inadequate and need to be revised. Remarkably, the standards only require an area the size of 33 parking lot spaces for a polar bear that would normally inhabit a home range thousands of square kilometers in size. They also allow bears to be locked in small cages after hours and sent to hot climates. And they’re essentially unenforceable beyond Manitoba.
The best way to help polar bears isn’t to incarcerate them in zoos. If rehabilitation is possible, it should take place in proper rehabilitation facilities, preferably in the north, so the bears can quickly be reintroduced back into the wild once they regain their health. For some bears, specialist rescue centers and sanctuaries that provide large natural living spaces may be an option. These facilities are very unlike traditional urban zoos. And if there are a few bears that are beyond help, we owe it to them to humanely end their suffering. They shouldn’t be sentenced to a miserable lifetime of captivity because it’s the easy and profitable thing to do.
The pro-captivity forces are lobbying to convince the authorities that a caged bear is a good thing. Many zoos seem confident they’ll be receiving polar bears from Manitoba.
Historically polar bears have been given a raw deal by the zoo industry. They've been the victims of an exploitive, one-sided relationship that doesn’t look like its going to change anytime soon. Instead of seizing the opportunity to radically change the captive polar bear paradigm for the benefit of bears, zoos are tinkering with the failed designs, concepts and ideas of the past.
I’ve often thought about what even a fraction of those hundreds of millions of dollars now being spent on polar bear exhibits could actually do if it were applied to real conservation. But instead of focusing on real solutions to real problems, instead of seizing the opportunity to become true vehicles of conservation action, zoos continue to perpetuate the deception of caged animals as conservation, soft peddle critical issues so they don’t “turn off” visitors and, with few exceptions, provide inconsequential support to initiatives that can actually make a difference.
When it comes to polar bears, the sad reality is that zoos continue to have one foot in the past and one in the cash register.