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Why polar bears should not be kept in zoos

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March 7, 2017

Polar bear cubs like Fritz of Berlin's Tierpark are cute and enjoy popularity. But is a zoo really the right place for them?

Arktis - Eisbär schwimmt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Bäsemann

Only 12 out of 400 German zoos keep polar bears, among them are Berlin's zoos: the Zoological Garden and the Berlin Tierpark. The latter just saw the sudden death of Fritz, a polar bear cub that died suddenly at the age of four months. In 2011, a similarly tragic incident occurred in Berlin's other zoo, the Zoological Garden, where a four-year-old cub named Knut passed away. This leaves only 26 polar bears in German zoos. Is it possible to keep care for this animal in captivity at all? DW spoke to James Brückner who is in charge of species conservation at the German Animal Welfare Association to find out.

Fritz died at just 4 months, following Knut who lived to be 4-years-old. Is survival particularly hard for polar bear cubs born in captivity?

Brückner: It's a general problem, and many cubs die young. Over the last ten years, only half of those born in German zoos survived. For this reason, the problem doesn’t specifically lie with zoos in Berlin.

Did you expect Fritz's premature death?

No, not in this particular case. Fritz had a twin brother who died at birth. Once cubs survive the first few months, their chances of having a long life are much higher. The death of Fritz is very sad indeed, but one has to keep in mind that the survival rate of cubs during their first few months is rather low.

Knut was hand-fed, while Fritz was breast-fed by his mother. Does that make a difference?

Hand-feeding is very difficult, as it doesn’t involve breast milk which meets the cub’s individual needs. Another aspect is that hand-fed cubs get used to human contact. People want to do everything to save the animal. That's why having the cubs mother breastfeed is always preferable.

BdT Deutschland Berlin Zoo Knut der Eisbär
Knut died at the age of four yearsImage: AP

How old do polar bears get in the wild?

Polar bears in the wild are confronted with numerous challenges which they don't face in zoos, including a rough climate, lack of food, rivals and diseases. These elements are lacking in a zoo. According to some studies, polar bears in the wild live to be 10 to 15 years old, while some polar bears in zoos have lived longer than 30 years. In general, polar bears in zoos live longer than their counterparts in the wild. It also doesn't hold true for all species, though. And when animal mortality is involved, this doesn’t make the situation in zoos any better in my view.

Do polar bears belong in zoos at all? Or should one differentiate between good and bad zoo conditions for polar bears?

There is certainly a difference between good and bad ways to keep animals in zoos. But generally speaking, polar bears are one of the species that should not be kept in captivity at all. This has to do with the fact that it's not possible to offer them what they need there. A polar bear in the wild moves around over 150,000 square kilometers and there are some good reasons for that. After all, polar bears need to search for food and they must defend their territory and it may not be necessary to simulate that in a zoo.

Also, these animals were made to withstand specific conditions in the Arctic, including extreme cold and the need to defend themselves against rivals. Since such conditions aren’t present in zoos where the animals are fed and are not threatened by diseases, part of their nature is suppressed. It's not possible to offer them any kind of diversion or activity in a zoo that can replace these lost challenges. That's why many polar bears kept in zoos show symptoms of abnormal behavior like permanently shaking their heads, running up and down or swimming in a stereotypical fashion. These acts are ways in which they try to compensate for what they’re lacking.

Do polar bears suffer more than other zoo animals?

That's a difficult question. How do you want to measure suffering…

Well, do they get sick more often, or do they show more symptoms of psychic diseases than other animals?

Deutschland Berliner Tierpark bangt um Eisbär-Baby Fritz
Little Fritz's life lasted for four months onlyImage: picture alliance/dpa/Tierpark Berlin

Definitely more than other animals. Their behavior is an expression of suffering resulting from the fact that their needs cannot be satisfied. On the other hand, the levels of stress hormones have been measured with the objective of proving that animals were not capable of suffering. It's a controversial question that cannot be answered with total certainty. From our animal welfare perspective we are convinced that polar bears should not be kept in zoos at all.

Over the last few years, many zoos got rid of their polar bear compounds. Was that the result of thinking that polar bears cannot be adequately kept in zoos?

The staff of a zoo should think hard about what can be realized on a given space. New compounds constructed nowadays are bigger, better and more adequate than the old ones. But the question is whether a zoo can afford all that, and many zoos cannot. It must also be kept in mind that many visitors are more aware of these issues. They don't want to watch animals swaying back and forth over and over again.

Does the German Animal Welfare Association see any possibility of improving the conditions of polar bears in captivity, or should they be banned altogether from zoos?

Any kind of improvement couldn't possibly be more than a drop in the bucket. It's simply not possible at all to adequately keep polar bears in a zoo. Thinking of the future, we should instead opt to ban them from zoos altogether, while greatly increasing our efforts to protect them in the wild.