On the Science and Ethics of Keeping Polar Bears In Captivity

A version of the following article originally appeared in International Bear News (Summer 2015, vol. 24 no. 2). International Bear News is a trade publication of the International Association for Bear Research and Management and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Bear Specialist Group.

As zoos in Toronto and Columbus, Ohio continue to provide intensive care to surviving captive-born polar bear cubs, the larger zoo community continues to advance efforts to build an insurance population in the event that climate change renders the Arctic inhospitable to polar bears.

Bear researchers and managers are sometimes critical of ex situ programs. Skeptical that zoo science confers much, if any value to better understanding polar bears in captivity or in the wild where polar bear habitat is clearly vanishing, field biologists are sometimes justified in their skepticism. But far more often I hear that field biologists are more concerned about the opportunities for bears to behave like wild bears in a captive setting. And in the case of polar bears, in particular, there are valid concerns that even the most naturalistic zoo enclosures can rarely mimic a polar bear’s natural environment.

A common argument opposing zoo-managed polar bears among wildlife biologists is that even the most state-of-the-art exhibits preclude opportunities for bears to behave normally or exhibit any natural behaviors. This is an entirely legitimate argument, but I contend it is not the most important issue, nor is it the most critical mission of the conventional zoological park.

Polar bears and bear species, in general, are obviously cognitively advanced compared to a multitude of species typically managed in zoos. The behavioral plasticity that polar bears exhibit is also relatively profound compared to many zoo animals cared for in these natural history institutions. So perhaps, a —> Read More