Polar bear in an unnamed Zoo, probably in the USA, some time between 1909 & 1932 (Library of Congress)
You would hope that the conditions in which captive polar bears are kept today have vastly improved since the above photograph was taken. Sadly, in a large number of instances, this is not the case.
In an ideal world there would be no polar bears in zoos. These Arctic giants have huge ranges in the wild, traveling many hundreds of miles in their search for food. They have evolved over millennia to exist and thrive in the harsh environment of the Arctic, so if ever there is an animal that doesn’t belong in a zoo it’s the polar bear.
At present there are in excess of 300 captive polar bears in the world. Many are young, and could live thirty years or more in captivity. They would not survive in the wild so can never be released. But there is much that can be done to improve their lives in captivity. The good news is that the best zoos in the world are increasingly investing significant resources to make life as fulfilling and pleasant as possible for the polar bears in their charge.
Sadly these zoos remain a minority and many animals live miserable lives in appalling, small and outdated facilities.
In many zoos, including some of the best, attempts continue to be made to breed polar bears in captivity. For many this is controversial; zoo bred bears can never be released into the wild. A number of activists and others feel that these captive bred bears can contribute little to science, but see “3” below.
Even if, as seems unlikely, captive breeding ended, there would still be problems and issues around what to do with cubs found orphaned in the wild and “problem bears” captured in populated areas.
Given the appalling conditions in which many of them are kept, it is not surprising that many captive polar bears manifest symptoms of extreme stress, such as continually shaking their heads, pacing up and down their enclosures or swimming in a stereotypical fashion.
Captive polar bears, along with orcas and other cetaceans, suffer from more sickness and psychologically related illness than any other animals kept in captivity.
Bear Conservation has three main goals regarding captive polar bears:
- The upgrading and improvement of substandard facilities holding captive polar bears to provide modern, state of the art “off exhibit” and “on exhibit” areas that meet the highest possible standards for housing, enrichment, general welfare and veterinary services. Air conditioning and water features are essential, together with a total area of at least 1 acre (0.4 hectares) per bear (ideally 2 acres per bear) as the minimum required for high welfare standards to be maintained. To read more on the basic welfare requirements for captive polar bears click here.
- Where the above cannot be achieved facilities must be closed as soon as possible, with the polar bears transferred to modern, high standard facilities in sanctuaries or zoos.
- A full and open review and debate regarding the science behind captive polar bear breeding programmes. Captive bears can serve as ambassadors for their species and Arctic habitat and increase awareness of the climate emergency, particularly among the young. They can also be used for non-invasive scientific research that would be impossible in the wild and which can ultimately benefit the entire species. However, many of the cubs born in captivity die within a few years, or even months, of birth. Breeding polar bears in captivity can never “save the bears” from extinction, nor repopulate the wild. No captive-born polar bear has ever been successfully released into the wild; indeed to do so would be contrary to IUCN regulations.
As part of the above we are compiling a comprehensive directory of all the polar bears currently kept in captivity and of the facilities where they are kept. If you would like to help with this work then please get in touch.
The Bear Conservation Captive Polar Bear Directory lists 152 zoos, aquariums and parks (including one circus) known to be keeping polar bears at present, to be planning to do so or to have done so in the recent past. A number of these already have detailed entries describing their facilities and husbandry and more are being added every week.
We have listed over 300 captive polar bears; in all likelihood there are others we are not yet aware of. To date over 80 of the bears have detailed biographical entries (follow the links from the directory). More are being added every week.
You can help us by visiting zoos that have polar bears, collecting photographs, videos and information on them and submitting them to us.
Zoos are too small for some species, biologists report (New York Times 2003). Opens in a new window.
First killer whales, now polar bears? PETA goes after SeaWorld again (San Diego Union-Tribune 2017). Opens in new window.
Polar bears in captivity: Does it help or hinder conservation? (DW 29 February 2016). Opens in new window.
Page updated 14 February 2021