End this tragedy

25 April 2023


In February, Born Free made headlines with our powerful new report exposing polar bear suffering in zoos. Time to bring this abhorrent, anachronistic practice to an end, says our Captivity Research Officer Chris Lewis.

An image of a solitary polar bear in its grey, stone zoo enclosure. Photographed through a window into its exhibit.

(c) Jo-Anne McArthur for Born Free

Captivity Research Officer Chris Lewis

It was 37 years ago that Born Free, or Zoo Check as we were originally called, commissioned Paul Horsman to undertake our first research project entitled Captive Polar Bears in UK and Ireland’. Although our understanding of the physiological and psychological requirements of polar bears has improved over time, it is truly alarming that issues and concerns highlighted within that report continue to ring true today. 

On International Polar Bear Day – 27 February 2023, Born Free released its latest report Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos. Compiled in collaboration with our colleagues at Born Free USA, separate European and North American versions of the report outline the history and continuing plight of captive polar bears within the respective regions and, through real-life examples, underline the health, welfare and ethical concerns associated with the keeping of polar bears in zoos.

Captive polar bears continue to suffer from reduced life expectancies from captivity-induced disease and inappropriate diets, heat stress in climates where temperatures exceed those experienced in their wild range, and a high prevalence of zoochotic stereotypical behaviour (abnormal, repetitive behaviours such as pacing or swaying).

Is it any wonder that these problems continue, when these apex predators, who usually roam a 32,000 mi² area equivalent to that of Austria, are kept in enclosures which are all-too-often little bigger than a 50m Olympic sized swimming pool? The comparison of their situation to providing a human with a wardrobe to sprint inside, may in fact be too generous. The volume of water provided for them to swim in, which is often freshwater instead of saltwater, arguably differs even more greatly by comparison.

Since the publication of our latest report in February, a polar bear cub was tragically killed at Copenhagen Zoo, Denmark, after gaining access to an electrical unit in its enclosure, chewing through the wire and being electrocuted. A female polar bear at Kushiro Zoo, Japan, was sadly killed by a male during a forced breeding attempt. And for what purpose?

These problems have been known about for years, yet little has changed for captive polar bears since our first report on their plight was published 37 years ago. The keeping of polar bears in zoos does nothing to protect the species in the wild, nor does it tackle the climate threats that they and their wild habitat face.

In December 2022, independent polling by Opinion Matters, commissioned by Born Free, found 76% of those surveyed believe it is important the next UK government phase-out the keeping of large animals, such as elephants, giraffe and polar bears, in captivity. Another survey of UK residents conducted by YouGov in March, found over half of respondents felt the same.

To date, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) have not responded to our correspondence regarding the future of polar bears in their member’s zoos, while the UK Government has indicated that there are currently no plans to ban the keeping of polar bears in zoos. In an attempt to justify this lack of action, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson indicated that the UK has ‘some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.’

Given all that we now know about polar bears, is being the ‘least worst’ something for the UK to be proud of? Despite Defra’s statement, there are no species-specific standards or guidance for polar bear keeping for UK zoos to be assessed against.

In fact, no EAZA guidelines exist either. Any reasonable guidelines for polar bears in captivity would surely have to highlight just how inadequate current facilities are in providing anything like the conditions a polar bear needs to thrive or recreate what they experience in the wild.

It is 30 years since the last dolphinarium in the UK closed. The required standards created for the keeping of cetaceans in captivity, albeit starkly inferior from the wild, remain too great for any facility to meet. On that occasion, the situation was taken out of the zoo industry’s hands and it was forced to accept the shortcomings and end the practice, a practice which persists across the world today.

The situation may soon repeat itself in the case of elephants, with a decision from the UK Government due imminently. But what of other wide-ranging mammals such as the polar bear? The difference between what they experience in the wild and in captivity is arguably one of the most extreme examples there is.

One must wonder if we will look back one day and ponder how we ever felt we could keep such a species in captivity in the first place and not feel saddened for allowing it to continue for so long.

Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos