Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos

27th February 2023


Born Free’s powerful new report exposes ongoing captive suffering and calls on zoos and governments to hasten an end to the keeping of these magnificent animals.

A polar bear behind the bars of it's captive zoo enclosure

Today, International Polar Bear Day, sees the launch of our major new report, Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos, exposing the true extent of the suffering of polar bears in zoos across Europe.

In Europe alone, 151 of these magnificent, wide-ranging, apex predators are incarcerated in zoos, including 12 in two establishments in the UK – Yorkshire Wildlife Park and Highland Wildlife Park. Using powerful, individual case studies, the report outlines the history and continuing plight of these captive polar bears and underlines, through real-life examples, the ethical, welfare and public safety concerns associated with the keeping of polar bears in zoos.

In the wild, these apex predators roam across vast natural ranges that are typically equivalent in size to the whole of Austria. In contrast, polar bears in zoos are confined in enclosures that are often only the size of an Olympic swimming pool, and in countries where they are completely unsuited to the warm climate.

The report lays bare the shocking and, at times, fatal impact of captivity on the physical and psychological health and welfare of polar bears that cannot participate in the wide-ranging, natural behaviours they have evolved to perform.

Horrifyingly, the majority of polar bears in European and North American zoos develop and display deep-seated, abnormal stereotypic behaviours, such as compulsive pacing and neck-twisting, as a consequence of long-term psychological damage. Their lifespan is often significantly reduced as a result of inappropriate diet, and several bears have died in zoos following ingestion of foreign objects.

The comprehensive report also emphasises the serious carbon costs associated with the building and maintenance of polar bear enclosures and the provisioning of food. Concrete production is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while steel production contributes a further 8%; both of these frequently feature in zoo-based polar bear enclosures. On top of the animal welfare issues, it calls into question whether, by keeping these animals, zoos are doing more harm to the planet than the good they claim.

This report comes 37 years after Born Free’s first commissioned report, which pulled back the curtain on the reality facing captive polar bears.  It shines a light on the archaic, unethical, and damaging practice of keeping polar bears in zoos; and reveals that, sadly, 37 years on from our original report, very little has changed. Despite the growing volume of evidence highlighting the plight of polar bears in zoos, many zoos persist in keeping and breeding them, and show no sign of changing their policy going forward.

Head shot of Born Free Executive President Will Travers OBE

“The tragedy of keeping polar bears in captivity is not only that so little has been done to address the problems they endure, but that zoos actively perpetuate them.”

– Will Travers OBE, Born Free Executive President


Independent research released by Born Free just a matter of weeks ago also demonstrates a tide of public support for an end to the keeping of large animals, such as polar bears, in captivity. Polling conducted by Opinion Matters, commissioned by Born Free, found 76% of those surveyed* believe it is very or quite important that the next UK government introduce measures to phase-out the keeping of large, wide-ranging animals in zoos, wildlife parks and other captive facilities.

Therefore, Born Free is, once again, reiterating its call for the capture of polar bears for captive use, and attempts to breed them in captivity, to be brought to an immediate end. Every effort must be made to ensure those polar bears that remain in captivity are provided with the best possible conditions to try and meet their welfare requirements and ensure their well-being for the rest of their lives, including moving animals, where feasible, to the best available facilities in the most appropriate climate.

The charity is urging the public to read and share this report with the relevant government body that legislates zoos in their country, urging them to take action to bring this travesty to a permanent end.

Will Travers OBE, Born Free’s Co-Founder and Executive President stated, “The tragedy of keeping polar bears in captivity is not only that so little has been done to address the problems they endure, but that zoos actively perpetuate them. Zoos continue to breed polar bears. They continue to house them in devastatingly inadequate settings. They continue to disseminate the myth that the lifetime incarceration of polar bears in zoos is somehow addressing the conservation threats the species faces in the wild. On the contrary, as this report indicates, zoos may be making matters worse for wild polar bears rather than better. The message is simple. No more breeding, no more imports, phase-out the suffering – and have the honesty and integrity to recognise what has been staring us in the face for decades: that polar bears cannot endure a life in zoos.”

Chris Lewis, Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer concluded, “When society looks back in years to come, people will rightly be shocked that zoos ever thought that they could keep such wide-ranging animals, that are fine-tuned to survive in such extreme conditions, in a captive environment. The zoo industry must remove their blinkers and accept that the welfare needs of polar bears cannot be met in captivity and humanely bring this practice to its long-awaited end.


Polar bear image (c) Jo-Anne McArthur for Born Free