The management and behaviour of captive polar bears

Ames, Alison (2001). The management and behaviour of captive polar bears. PhD thesis The Open University.



Captive polar bears kept in the British Isles were observed in order to identify differences in the behavioural repertoire of captive and wild animals. 1313 hours of observations were collected on 14 captive polar bears (Ursus maritimus), kept at 7 different zoos, over a two year period starting in September 1989. The bears were mostly kept in pairs, in enclosures comprised of concrete, rock and water. In such environments, behavioural opportunities were limited and all 14 bears exhibited stereotypic behaviour. Husbandry methods for feeding and foraging, object manipulation, and enclosure modification and design were compared at different zoos and with the behaviour of wild polar bears. The bears' activity budgets, social behaviour, and stereotypic behaviour were also examined. Further observations were collected on the behaviour and ecology of wild polar bears in Canada's Hudson Bay and 250 hours of observations were collected on the behaviour of 17 brown (Ursus arctos) and 24 spectacled ears (Tremarctos ornatus) at 7 different zoos.

Captive polar bears anticipated their feeding time and when feeding motivation is frustrated it can result in increased levels of stereotypic behaviour. A positive correlation was found between the number of feeds captive polar bears were given per hour and the percentage of time they spent feeding and foraging. Under existing husbandry standards, captive polar bears would need to be fed every 1. 7 hours in order to stimulate similar levels of feeding and foraging as their wild counter-parts. Scattering food around the bears' enclosures stimulated foraging activity and scatter feeds were most effective when delivered by the keeper rather than a mechanical feeder. Captive polar bears were observed manipulating and playing with objects. Males played with objects for shorter but more frequent periods and females exhibited longer, less frequent object handling bouts. Captive polar bears should be provided with a regular supply of novel objects that stimulate and enable them to express some of the predatory behaviours they exhibit in the wild. Enclosures were modified and a new enclosure was designed for captive polar bears to incorporate natural substrates and visual barriers. The changes affected the bears' behaviour by increasing feeding and foraging time, decreasing abnormal behaviour, increasing the amount of time bears spent on natural substrates, and by providing them with areas where they were able to get out of each other's sight. A significant correlation was found between the activity budgets of captive polar bears and photoperiod. Wild polar bears are mostly solitary yet in captivity they are generally kept in pairs. Female polar bears did not prefer the companionship of other females to males nor did the behaviour of captive bears change when their cage mate was removed from the enclosure. Captive polar bears should not necessarily be kept in solitary confinement or single sex groups but they need an environment with visual barriers that allows them to get away from cage mates. All captive polar bears exhibited stereotypic behaviour but it was not influenced by age, sex, season, or at which zoo the bears were kept. Data indicated that individual differences leave some bears more susceptible to stereotypic behaviour than others. Comparisons indicated that captive polar bears were more susceptible to stereotypic behaviour than either brown or spectacled bears.

Changes can be made to the day to day husbandry, existing enclosures can be modified, and new enclosures can be designed which reduce abnormal behaviours and increase natural behaviours in captive polar bears.

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