The Polar Bear Controversy

If you google “polar bear” + death + zoo, you’ll find a slew of polar bear deaths over the past few years.  Most, if not all, were not due to neglect on the zoo’s part, but were accidents or medical issues.  However, because of public and animal activism outcry, zoos have had to take a long, hard look at whether or not they should continue to display polar bears. 

Recently, our firm has had the opportunity to work with several zoos on their new polar bear exhibits.  The impetus to create new habitats for these bears has stemmed both from public outcry and also from the recognition of the poor design of the bears’ enclosures.  

Bear Pit in BerneHistorically, around the turn of the 20th century, bears of all kinds were held in a “bear pit.”  Originally, these pits are exactly as they are named; rock enclosures with a depressed center where people can look down onto the bears.  Slowly, through the 1940s, the pit design evolved into more of an eye-to-eye enclosure, rather than a depression, where the bears’ habitat is on similar grade to the visitor.  

Inspired by Carl Hagenbeck, moats were incorporated across the fronts Modern Bear Pit of these “modern pits” and allowed a more unobstructed view to the bears.  Exhibits are small, with little to no natural substrate, and generally include a small, five or six foot deep pool, ensuring the bears will be in view at all points along the open viewing rail.  Access to back-of-house dens directly connect to the back of the exhibit, tucked inside rocks, leaving a nice little den for the bear to sleep in away from the visitor.  

Until recently, these were the standard bear exhibits seen throughout zoos worldwide.  Luckily, whether out of concern for perception of care or well-being of the animals, zoos have started an exhibit design evolution of these exhibits.  

Along with increasing sizes of exhibits, zoos are incorporating underwater viewing, deep pools, shallow pools, natural streams, natural substrate for digging and denning, places to hide, cool rocks, fish shooters and more.  A lot of these recommendations are coming directly from the knowledgeable folks at the AZA Bear TAG.  

Detroit Zoo's Polar BearsPart of the controversy with the new exhibits, however, in terms of design, is the barriers. Until recently, USDA APHIS guidelines were the only standards available for any aspects of the polar bear exhibit design.  Horribly small minimums for dry area and pool surface area and depth were the only standards outlined in these regulations.  Barrier height was left to the zoo’s discretion, averaging around 12′ in height for walls and width and depth of moats.  

In response to the need for better guidelines, the AZA announced they’d be creating Standardized Guidelines for polar bears, outlining the zoo community’s collective opinion on habitat design, including barriers.  At the same time, the province of Manitoba released an official document (which later became law, as I understand it), mandating exhibit minimums for any zoo hoping to receive a “polar bear donation” from the province (which is a major sector of polar bear habitat).  

From the Manitoba Conservation webpageThe policy specifies that only orphaned cubs will be donated to zoos, that cubs will not be captured specifically for donation to zoos, and that animals will only be donated to zoos that meet or exceed the specified standards.  

Procedures further require that the receiving zoo must enter into a contractual obligation to maintain the required facilities for the life of the bear… and to ensure that if the bear or offspring are transferred, the new facility also meets or exceeds the specified standards.  

The facility standards require, among other things, that barriers are 20′ tall in the case of walls and depth of moats, and 20′ wide for moats. 

The AZA guidelines released soon after did not follow these regulations and are recommending only 16′ in height (and width of moats), with 20’distance from visitor viewing to bear area (16′ moat plus 4′ landscape buffer to handrail). 

The question for zoos now is:  Which do we follow? 

San Diego's Polar BearsMost bears in zoos are born in captivity, but a few still come from Canada as a “donation” due to the orphaned bear problem.  Zoos must now use their magic eight ball to determine if they will, in the future, take Canadian bears to fill their collection needs as older bears die, or if they should invest in better facilities for breeding.  Some zoos are deciding the costs of the extra 4′ in barrier height do not fit their capital budget. 

Other zoos are choosing to delete polar bears from their collections completely, knowing the costs of updating exhibits are just too high for the benefit they would gain by keeping the animals.  

Either way, polar bears across the globe are getting new digs.  Hopefully, the public will applaud these changes, instead of taking aim at zoos lagging behind.  Only the magic eight ball can know for sure.

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