Here’s a fun misinformation campaign going on about the Denver Zoo’s announced polar bear moves, courtesy of a misunderstanding of polar bear behavior PETA perpetuated last spring.
In mid-October, the Denver Zoo announced that their two resident polar bears, Cranbeary and Lee, would be moving to other AZA-accredited institutions. This reasons for this move are two-fold: to facilitate the Species Survival Plan conservation breeding program for polar bears, and so that Denver can begin work on remodeling their bear habitats. The polar bear population within American zoos is very small – only 44 animals – and has a lot of older individuals, so it’s really important for the sustainability of that program that bears of reproductive age are with partners with whom they’re producing cubs. Cranbeary and Lee have both been at Denver for six years, but have never had cubs – so they’ve been paired up with bears at other facilities with whom they’re a good genetic match. After their departure, the polar bear exhibit will be home to the zoo’s grizzly bears while funds are raised for the construction of a new, modern polar bear habitat.
As soon as this move was announced, a petition showed up on Care2 (a non-profit petition platform that helps animal rights campaigns with their media strategies, and makes money by selling the contact information of petition signers to various groups – including PETA) saying that splitting up the bears was immoral… because they were in love. What’s more, that petition demanded that the bears be removed from the zoo population and sent to a sanctuary to live out their lives in each other’s company. But there’s a problem with that: polar bears are solitary, and Cranbeary and Lee are not “bonded.” Polar bears are naturally only social with other adult members of their species during the breeding season – maybe a month out of each year. The cute photos that populate the Care2 petition, as well as news releases about the move, were all taken during that short window. Just as the bears wouldn’t want to be near each other the rest of the time if they were in the wild, the zoo manages them as solitary animals and gives them space from each other the rest of the year. Denver zoo’s director of communications also noted publicly that the bears aren’t even getting along for the full breeding season: “Cranbeary has been losing interest in Lee even before that period ends, Kubie [said], noting that she ‘starts getting pretty agitated with Lee.’”
So where did this idea of “bonded” polar bears in zoos come from? It was certainly popularized in April of last year, when a polar bear at SeaWorld Orlando died shortly after the zoo’s other female polar bear was transferred to another facility for breeding purposes. PETA’s vice president made public comment that the solitary female polar bear remaining at SeaWorld had lost all hope, given up, and died “of a broken heart.” This pseudo-scientific interpretation was then repeated internationally by news sources, and only a few bothered to include the AZA’s statement on the incident – none of them actually interviewed wild polar bear researchers to ascertain if there was any veracity to the claim. Some of it might be due to history, too – for a long time it was common practice in American zoos to house adult polar bears together year round – until research started indicating that they were avoiding each other, and would prefer to be more solitary except during breeding seasons.
Because of the Care2 petition and all of the other animal liberation organizations voices that have boosted their message, there are now hundreds of thousands of people who believe that naturally solitary bears maintain emotional “friendships” with each other similar to those of humans. They’ve been convinced that sending these two polar bears to a sanctuary to “keep them together forever” is better for their welfare than keeping them within an accredited zoo program. There’s actually no information in the short petition about the behavioral, medical, and physiological needs of polar bears in human care, and how a sanctuary would be able to fulfill them better than an AZA-accredited zoo. (Instead, it repeats claims about stereotypical behavior and ignores the body of published, peer-reviewed research by the zoo world that informs polar bear habitat design and management programs.) they’d b
here’s no sanctuary specified in the petition, probably because it’s hard to tell if there’s a sanctuary in the United States would be able to provide an appropriate habitat or care for for polar bears. Given that Care2 is openly and frequently anti-zoo, it’s much more likely that this petition was created with the intention of further increasing anti-zoo sentiments among the public (when the zoo chooses not to remove genetically valuable animal from a conservation breeding program and send them to facilities whose quality of care it cannot guarantee) rather than actually improve the welfare of Cranbeary and Lee.
TL;DR Animal rights groups and the petition sites that support them are spreading incorrect information about bears to further their anti-zoo agenda and to try to remove animals from zoo conservation breeding programs.
They’re Not ‘In Love,’ Denver Zoo Says As Petition To Keep Polar Bears Together Gains Support