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,
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
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
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.