On the Science and Ethics of Keeping Polar Bears In Captivity

Bear researchers and managers are sometimes critical of ex situ programs. Skeptical that zoo science confers much, if any value to better understanding polar bears in captivity or in the wild where polar bear habitat is clearly vanishing, field biologists are sometimes justified in their skepticism.
12/08/2015 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

A version of the following article originally appeared in International Bear News (Summer 2015, vol. 24 no. 2). International Bear News is a trade publication of the International Association for Bear Research and Management and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Bear Specialist Group.

As zoos in Toronto and Columbus, Ohio continue to provide intensive care to surviving captive-born polar bear cubs, the larger zoo community continues to advance efforts to build an insurance population in the event that climate change renders the Arctic inhospitable to polar bears.

Bear researchers and managers are sometimes critical of ex situ programs. Skeptical that zoo science confers much, if any value to better understanding polar bears in captivity or in the wild where polar bear habitat is clearly vanishing, field biologists are sometimes justified in their skepticism. But far more often I hear that field biologists are more concerned about the opportunities for bears to behave like wild bears in a captive setting. And in the case of polar bears, in particular, there are valid concerns that even the most naturalistic zoo enclosures can rarely mimic a polar bear's natural environment.

A common argument opposing zoo-managed polar bears among wildlife biologists is that even the most state-of-the-art exhibits preclude opportunities for bears to behave normally or exhibit any natural behaviors. This is an entirely legitimate argument, but I contend it is not the most important issue, nor is it the most critical mission of the conventional zoological park.

Polar bears and bear species, in general, are obviously cognitively advanced compared to a multitude of species typically managed in zoos. The behavioral plasticity that polar bears exhibit is also relatively profound compared to many zoo animals cared for in these natural history institutions. So perhaps, a less contentious view, and one adopted by some of my colleagues in the ex situ community, is that zoo animals live a far different existence, but not necessarily a lesser existence. Natural behavior is not entirely absent in captive polar bears, but these animals are certainly limited in opportunities to behave as a free-ranging bear might behave. With that said, a polar bear in a zoo likely experiences something more comparable to that of our companion animals. This may elicit readers to take pause, but one can't deny that zoo bears develop strong relationships with their caregivers and conspecifics, as they are managed in groups in most captive situations.

Captive bears are also exposed to an array of different stimuli and they readily "adapt" to more routinized schedules, which obviously cater to the work day and temporal provisions for the animal care staff. This is not to say that I advocate for placing free-ranging polar bears in zoos, but that the welfare and experience of polar bears currently in zoos is not necessarily compromised from a perspective often shared by popular media publications; it is just starkly different for the captive population.

I contend that polar bear ambassadors in zoos are very well cared for and that due to relatively new national zoo association recommendations and federal legislation and guidelines, polar bears in North American zoos are afforded even more optimized care than some lower profile species on display.

Once considered menageries and "edutainment" attractions, conservation breeding and education facilities are serviced by trained staff from behaviorists to veterinary clinicians, and pathologists to a cohort of educated animal keeper staff. Today's animal keeper is dedicated to enriching the environment of individual animals under their care. Furthermore, intensive study by ethologists and endocrinologists working in zoos permits more than anecdotal evidence to shape the experience for polar bears in zoological facilities. In fact, some zoo scientists have spent their careers dedicated to studying enrichment programs with the intent to improve them for the psychological benefit of future generations of zoo animals.

While at one time, a main objective of zoo behaviorists and animal managers was to reduce inherent stress from dated enclosures void of much behavioral stimuli and interactions with conspecifics, revolutionized exhibits have made it possible to not only carefully consider the welfare of these animals, but to encourage behavior that is educational for zoo patrons.

The truth is that what constitutes education is quite relative. In a related article discussing the educational value of marine parks holding cetaceans, which also generates significant controversy, I argued that these wildlife attractions are not intended to inspire every patron to become a marine mammalogist. Rather, exposure to zoo animal ambassadors is intended to cultivate some appreciation for the biology of wildlife species, but much more importantly it is intended to foster more interest in the wild and wild places and promote the stewardship of nature.

What compelled me to write this opinion article as the IBN's captive news correspondent was an announcement of a newly opened exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, which I came across a few days after opening on June 6th 2015. The Zoo's webpage dedicated to the "McDonnell Polar Bear Point" exhibit describes the features of the $16 million display. It may not simulate polar bear habitat as you may wish, but it provides exposure to these magnificent species that few will otherwise get a chance to see in the wild.

There is no question that zoo exhibits are still largely designed for zoo patrons, but what percentage of inner city or suburban kids in St. Louis are going to ever get an opportunity to see polar bears in the wild. It would be nice to think that many spend evenings watching documentaries of polar bears or that they are required to be given access to such footage at school, but I suspect they aren't and it is to detriment of the polar bear.