Grizzly bears in San Francisco Zoo (2010) (© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons)

Bears are highly intelligent, wide-ranging animals and can therefore suffer particularly badly in captivity.  Many bears kept in zoos, circuses and road-side “shows” display abnormal behaviours, including repetitive pacing, swaying from side to side or  bar-biting.

Bear Conservtion campaigns to end the confinement of bears for ‘entertainment’. We aim to address five main areas; circuses and shows, zoos and collections, bear farms, dancing bears, and bear baiting.  Follow the links below to find out more.  See also our separate section on Sanctuaries.





Bears are kept in travelling circuses in many parts of the world and black bears are one of the most common species used in circus acts.

Generally sanitation levels are poor, exercise largely non-existent, space highly limited, food inappropriate and general living and transportation conditions appalling.  Many animals are mutilated either in training or accidentally.  Rings through noses and injured or even removed paws are not uncommon.

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Bears belong in the wild and certainly not in private animal collections or unsuitable zoo accommodation. 

Unfortunately, there are still significant numbers of them on display in various parts of the world where their living conditions range from poor to awful with bears held in small, barren enclosures with little or no enrichment and in climates which are totally inappropriate.

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In an ideal world there would be no polar bears in zoos, for if ever there is an animal that doesn’t belong in a zoo it’s the polar bear. 

Sadly, most captive polar bears are kept in facilities, and often in climates, which are totally unsuitable.  Only a very few facilities provide sufficient space for the bears to live anything approaching a contended and fulfilling life. 

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Around 10,000 bears are currently kept on Chinese bear farms where they produce a surplus of bile which has led to efforts to expand the use of bear bile into cosmetics and shampoos.

The bile is periodically drained, so the captive bears do not have to be killed; it was claimed that this practice would thereby reduce the taking of wild bears. However, there is no evidence of any reduction in the killing (poaching) of wild bears.

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Thanks to hard work by a number of animal charities working with governments, dancing bears may hopefully soon be a thing of the past.

  A survey in 1995 put the number of dancing bears in India at 1,200.  By 2010 this figure is believed to have fallen to 10 to 15 bears in India and Nepal.  However, the practice also continues in a number of other Asian and European countries, including by street “entertainers” in Spain and Russia.

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Not to be confused with the practice of luring bears to food bait-piles and then shooting them, bear-baiting involves trained fighting dogs being pitted against a tethered bear

Typically three or four dogs will be set against a single bear.  The bears claws and some or all of its teeth will have been removed, usually without the use of an anaesthetic.  

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Ensuring captive animal welfare

The following is extracted from the website of the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Ensuring that exotic animals in the care of humans experience great welfare requires acknowledgement of fundamental issues:

    • Zoos and aquariums have an ethical obligation to understand and ensure the well-being of every animal.
    • An individual’s overall mental, physical and emotional state (referred to as welfare or well-being) is determined only by that individual.
    • Captive exotic animals must be able to exercise relevant and meaningful control and choice in their lives.
    • Good care is not the same as good welfare.
    • Constant, rigorous evaluation of captive environments and practices is essential.
    • Sharing of information and open dialogue is essential.

In zoos and aquariums, ensuring the well-being of individuals (animal welfare) may sometimes conflict with ensuring the well-being of species (conservation). Animals that are old, non-breeding, or not considered genetically “valuable” are often viewed as competitors for resources. Zoos and aquariums need to move forward as welfare centers, championing compassionate approaches that ensure the well-being of the animals within their organizations as well as for the animals in their field conservation programs. Compassionate conservation is an emerging field that considers the welfare of individual animals affected by conservation practices (e.g., capturing, marking/tagging). Zoos and aquariums are especially well-suited to promoting compassionate conservation.

Things to look for when visiting captive bears

In 1965 the UK government published the Brambell Report.  Included were “five freedoms” that have since become internationally recognised standards for the welfare of captive animals.  These are a good basis for assessing the welfare of captive bears and are listed below with some suggestions on what to look out for:

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst. Animals should look well-fed, healthy and vigorous with access to clean water in their enclosures at all times.

2. Freedom from discomfort. There should be shelter from the elements (including sun, wind and precipitation), ample space, a comfortable resting area and a secluded area away from crowds and noise.

3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease. There should not be any visible injuries to animals, nor should they be expected to participate in activities that could cause injury, distress or pain. Enclosures should be clean.

4. Freedom to express normal behaviour. Animals should be given sufficient space and facilities (for example, a large pool, pond or lake for polar bears) and should not be expected to perform or interact with the public.

5. Freedom from fear and distress.  Conditions and treatment should avoid mental suffering (which is often evidenced by stereotypical behaviours such as repeated pacing, head-shaking, etc.) including that caused by fear-based training, loud music or noises, close proximity to crowds, and visitors banging on glass partitions.

If you have concerns about any captive bears that you visit please get in touch with us here.  If you are able to provide photographic or video evidence let us know and we’ll contact you with details of how to get it to us.

You can help us by reporting back on the bears you visit in zoos and aquariums.  We’ve created a Word document questionnaire that you can print out to take with you and complete.  Click here to download from our server.

You can return the completed questionnaire to us in an email to

More information on the suggested minimum requirements for each species of bear when kept in captivity, will be published during 2020 as part of our “Clear Vision ” project and linked from here.

Page updated 05 December 2019