Activity 4B: Explore

Aerial view of mud flats in Churchill

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International

AACs and Zoo-Based Conservation Science

Working Together!

Our capacity as a global conservation community increases when we all work together—NGOs, government agencies, academia, industry, and the international zoo community. There is much we don’t know about polar bear ecology and there is an opportunity to learn much more from studying zoo polar bears. Enriched captive environments can play a key role in conservation efforts and zookeepers are often contributing to key research studies that would otherwise be impossible to conduct with wild polar bears.

Over the past 40+ years, scientists have overcome tremendous logistical challenges to study wild polar bears. Studying polar bears in the wild can be very logistically demanding, expensive and even dangerous.  Also, for researchers to have the same wild bear in hand multiple times during any given year is extremely rare, meaning that field data often gives researchers a precious but single snapshot in time of what is happening with the individual bear. 

Zoos and aquariums present a unique environment for studying polar bears. Ultimately, helping us better understand polar bear behavior and physiology. 

From understanding the energy demands of wild polar bears and what noises might disturb them to looking at the impact of habitat fragmentation via diminished sea ice on polar bear scent communication—polar bears in zoos have helped scientists answer questions that help us better understand wild polar bears. By resolving key knowledge gaps in polar bear ecology we can better inform management strategies and understand the impacts of a warming Arctic on some polar bear populations.

Polar Bears International has been working with the AZA Polar Bear SSP and zoo and aquarium advisors and researchers to resolve these knowledge gaps and supported the formation of the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC). As you may know, the PBRC was formed by the AZA Polar Bear SSP in North America several years ago. One of its goals is to streamline and coordinate priority research involving polar bears in zoos that can inform critical conservation and management questions that exist for polar bears in the wild. Polar Bears International has been committed to elevating the work of the PBRC since its inception. 

Check out the blog post on PBI’s website that highlights this important work. And share with your team and colleagues!

The PBRC’s goals are to: 

  1. Facilitate the use of the ex situ population to better characterize basic biology and to advance scientific methodologies for comparison and application to wild polar bears; 

  2. Support research that is necessary for maintaining a viable, sustainable ex situ population for scientific research with application to the conservation of wild bears; and

  3. Build capacity within SSP member institutions to participate in priority scientific research efforts.

All of this is collected in the PBRC Research Masterplan, a living document revised regularly, that prioritizes ex situ research vital to polar bear conservation and management. It serves as a roadmap to the roles zoos and aquariums can fill in our understanding of polar bear life history needs. The newest masterplan with current priorities was released January 2022.

I encourage you to take a look at it to learn more about the kinds of research the polar bears in Zoos and Aquariums could become involved in to help polar bears in the wild. Has your team participated in any of the research in this masterplan? 

As a reminder, AZA generously hosts the "Polar Bear Conservation Community," a forum for sharing knowledge and collaborating , open to international professionals of all disciplines involved in the husbandry, welfare, research and conservation of polar bears.  You can join the conversation and suggest to others that they join by emailing the PBRC Facilitator, Amy Cutting, at

If you are already a member of the community, you may email this group directly at,

Two other spaces to plug into a community of your professional peers:

  1. If you are on Facebook - we would love it if you joined our private PBI Climate Alliance and Arctic Ambassador Alumni Collaboration Space. It’s a great way to stay connected! Comment in Discord if you would like to receive a link to join.

  2. Some of you may also participate in the Polar Bear Keepers private space on Facebook. If you aren’t a member and are interested in joining you can search for the group and an admin will approve! Past animal care alumni have expressed this to be a useful space. 

Expanding these efforts with the European Zoo Community

Over the years, our European advisors and other zoo staff identified international collaboration and connection as a priority. In recent years, PBI has had the opportunity and pleasure to expand our reach in Europe and we are grateful to have the support of many institutions caring for polar bears. We’ve been hard at work with our committed advisors and Arctic Ambassador Centers to build capacity for research in European zoos and to connect zoo staff to researchers studying polar bears in the wild.  Here’s a brief recap of our work during that time:

In 2017, PBI organized its first ever European Keeper Exchange, bringing a keeper from the Mulhouse Zoo to learn from and exchange information with staff at the San Diego Zoo and Como Park Zoo; we built on this exchange by hosting the first European Polar Bear Husbandry Training Workshop, drawing keepers from across Europe to productive sessions at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.  Workshop delegates participated in hands on, practical training sessions and contributed to informative sessions on operant conditioning, scheduling and time management, as well as behavior management and problem solving – including the common medical issues concerning zoo polar bears and appropriate management methods.

Then, we sponsored the first European Workshop on Polar Bears and Conservation Science, held at the Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schoenbrunn) in April 2018. Among the workshop participants and presenters were directors, curators, polar bear researchers, veterinarians, and conservationists. The focus – how research in European zoos can inform and support polar bear conservation in the wild. We had 50 participants join the workshop from 22 Institutions and 5 universities, representing 11 countries within Europe, The United States, and Canada! We explored a range of topics over the three days of productive sessions, presentations, and breakout meetings. A few years ago PBI hired Thea Bechshoft as a staff scientist, with a special responsibility for furthering the collaborative research and conservation science efforts within the EAZA community. This investment has led to the establishment of the EAZA polar bear EEP research working group, as well as a polar bear research prospectus (currently underway and expected to be available by September, 2023). We are also working on a polar bear conference to be held in the UK in January 2024. More info to come! 

Snowy Trees in Churchill

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International


Continue on to Activity 4C–Reflect.