Friday, September 23, 2011

Learning from Wisconsin Bears

Just a short while ago I paid a visit to the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center (WBBEC), a private facility run by Wausau, Wisconsin resident Jeff Traska. I've known Jeff through email and telephone communications for about 7 years. He first contacted me for information about how to keep bears, because he was the custodian of three American black bears and he wanted to make sure he was doing the best he could to provide for their needs.

There are loads of people, organizations and zoos in the US and Canada who keep bears in captivity and I've seen more than my fair share of them. In my experience, it's quite rare to see an impressive bear enclosure, meaning one sufficiently large and complex enough for the bears they confine to actually act like bears. Most enclosures tend to be small, boring, often old-style concrete grottos, where the bears can do little more than sit, lie or sleep their lives away.

Remarkably, even though the biology and behaviour of bears is well known, there are still many horrendously bad bear enclosures, many of them expensive new enclosures in big budget zoos. Some zoos have spent millions of dollars on bear exhibits and have ended up with little more than modified versions of the inadequate exhbiits they had in the past.

The WBBEC was a refreshing change from the norm. Traska tried to figure out what the bears would need and set out to construct an enclosure that would satisfy those needs. The result is one of the largest and most natural bear enclosures in the US. It puts to shame most of the bear exhibits in traditional zoos and shows just how wasteful and deficient they are. Remarkably, the WBBEC enclosure was constructed at a cost of about $100,000.

A visit to the WBBEC raises an obvious question. If a lone individual in rural Wisconsin can build an impressive, spacious enclosure that satisfies a good portion of the bear's needs, then why can't zoos, with their expert staff, committees, architects, and millions of dollars do the same. It's time the zoo industry looked outside the traditional zoo box to see what else is there. They could learn a lot and save vast sums of money in the process. Best of all, it would be good for the bears.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada