Polar bears are awesome animals. In the wild, they roam enormous areas of the Arctic, with natural ranges that are on average considerably larger the whole of Scotland.
It’s not surprising then that they fare particularly poorly in captivity and are vulnerable to problems such as problems that include poor health, repetitive stereotypic behaviour and breeding difficulties. A paper published in the Journal Nature as long ago as 2003 found that these problems are linked to constraints imposed on the natural behaviour of these animals in captivity. It recommended that naturally wide-ranging carnivores should be either fundamentally improved or phased out.
Which is why we were dismayed to learn about plans at the Highland Wildlife Park to begin breeding polar bears.
Many will argue that this is all about conservation, but if it is the onus is on the Wildlife Park to prove that polar bear conservation would benefit from a small number of captive-bred animals in Scotland. In a way I wish it were true, because the reality is bleaker.
There are 22,413 species, including 1197 mammals, that are on the IUCN Red list because they are considered threatened. Polar bears are one of these species although they are classified as ‘vulnerable’ rather than endangered or critically endangered. So why pick polar bears as one of the species for a zoo breeding programme?
My guess is that other motives are at play, and this hunch only gets stronger when you look at the actual threats to wild polar bears. The problem is not that the species has been persecuted to a point where captive breeding is required, for example. The main threat to polar bears is climate change; and unless we address this, there will be no suitable habitat to release captive bred animals into. That means that if you really want to save polar bears, you should be looking at doing everything you can about climate change rather than building a captive population of bears that will in the end have no place to go.
Back in 1998 I visited Edinburgh zoo and saw Mercedes, the polar bear that was on display there at the time. Watching her walk in identical circles around her tiny enclosure again and again was heart-breaking. The pacing of wild carnivores was one of the first stereotypical behaviours commented on by biologists. It became so notorious that the Dutch use the word ‘ijsberen’ to describe restless, pacing people. When she was finally moved to a better enclosure in the Highland Wildlife Park in 2009 like many others who had witnessed her suffering hoped that this was the beginning of the end for the keeping of polar bears in captivity in the UK. Yes, a larger enclosure is better, but it’s still no home for a polar bear.