What is PBI’s position on polar bears in zoos?

Answered by Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International and Polar Bear Project Leader at the U.S. Geological Survey for thirty years.

Q: What is PBI’s position on polar bears in zoos? Don't polar bears have trouble adjusting to life in a zoo or aquarium?

A: Our goal at PBI is to save polar bears and their sea ice habitat—and modern zoos and aquariums can play a critical role in their conservation.

Wild polar bears rely on sea ice for reaching their seal prey. But arctic sea ice is retreating from human-caused global warming, threatening the survival of polar bears. Unless we take action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the warming, we could lose two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by mid-century and all of them by the end of the century.

And this is where zoos and aquariums can help.

Polar bears have captured the human imagination like no other animal. Few people have the chance to see polar bears in the wild, but millions see them in zoos. And quality, well-run zoos offer a unique opportunity to explain the threats polar bears face and to inspire actions necessary to save them.

Our research shows that as the sea ice melts, more polar bears will be driven ashore, many of them in compromised condition. More cubs will become orphaned when their hungry mothers are shot after getting into conflicts with humans or when separated by long swims or unusual ice conditions. Rescuing some of these bears and giving them a new lease on life in a quality zoo or aquarium is the humane thing to do. More important, the messaging attached to zoo exhibits will provide direct benefits to bears remaining in the wild. Those rescued bears literally will become ambassadors for their wild counterparts!

Conservation messaging may be the most important contribution zoos and aquariums can make to a secure future for polar bears, but it is not the only contribution. Much of our current knowledge about wildlife medicine and diseases was developed in zoos—knowledge that may prove invaluable to dwindling polar bear populations because small wildlife populations are at greater risk of disease epidemics. Zoo personnel also are expert at small population management and genetics and are studying assisted reproductive techniques to maintain the genetic diversity that populations lose as they decline. Deeply reduced populations may one day benefit from genes reintroduced to the wild from zoo populations.

Dozens of species are healthier and more abundant in the wild today because of captive breeding and other zoo programs. In 2010, U.S. zoos and aquariums spent $130 million on field conservation projects in over 100 countries. Given the alternatives, not preparing for the day when polar bears might be candidates for the assistance from zoos is imprudent.

Some have suggested the polar bear’s great movements in the wild, which far exceed the space available in zoo exhibits, leads to polar bears that are depressed, stressed, and fare poorly when living in zoos. The fact that polar bears typically live far longer in captivity than in the wild, however, belies this claim—and quality zoos and aquariums design exhibits and provide enrichment that keep the bears in their care curious and engaged. Modern zoos recognize that their conservation goals cannot be achieved by displaying animals in poor mental or physical health. They take advantage of the best available veterinary, nutritional, and behavioral science to maximize animal welfare and well-being.

Starvation soon will lead to orphaned cubs and other at-risk bears dying in large numbers. Quality zoos will not be able to save them all. But saving some and allowing them to advocate for salvation of their remaining wild kin is a higher and better choice than watching them starve on the beach, or shooting them as they come to human communities looking for food.

For a snapshot of the conservation efforts on the part of zoos and aquariums in our Arctic Ambassador Center (AAC) network, visit our AAC page.