Animal Welfare Act May Not Be Enough For Bears In Roadside Zoos : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Even when the Animal Welfare Act is followed, bears may not live in conditions that many would find reasonable for such large, intelligent animals to flourish, says anthropologist Barbara J. King.
NPR logo Bears Can Face Summer Challenges In Roadside Zoos

Bears Can Face Summer Challenges In Roadside Zoos

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Bears in roadside zoos can suffer in the summer if they don't have the proper conditions, says Barbara J. King.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

All this summer, bears have been on my mind.

Last month, Undark Magazine published an essay I wrote about the time I thought I was a bear.

It happened one long night four years ago, immediately following extensive surgery for cancer, a night that preceded months to come of chemotherapy and radiation. Hooked up to a catheter, I felt an unexpected and profound sense of connection with bears I had been reading about for my work: the "bile bears" in Asia so cruelly confined, sometimes for decades, in impossibly tight cages and often with catheters inserted in order for their bile to be harvested. (For centuries, bile has been touted as effective in treating various human health conditions; evidence is mixed on this point, with its efficacy established for some conditions and not others.)

One point I made in that essay is that cruelty to animals isn't something that happens only in other countries, away from our own lives. I illustrated that point by writing about conditions for farmed animals.

But now, I'd like to get more specific about conditions for bears.

More than 1,100 bears are held in U.S. non-accredited zoo or zoo-like facilities (in addition to around 1,700 in accredited ones), according to PETA, an organization that advocates for the ethical treatment of animals. A number of these bears — poor documentation makes it tough to know the exact number — live in inadequate habitats such as small concrete enclosures, where the summer's heat makes it especially hard for them.

Ben Williamson, a PETA spokesperson, told me via email that bears are "uniquely worse off than other species in roadside zoos." This is because, Williamson explained:

"... they suffer uniquely due to the fact that they are highly intelligent, complex individuals who have vast home ranges in the wild. Wild bears are highly active and travel extensively within their home ranges on a daily basis performing a large set of natural behaviors such as climbing, swimming, digging, and foraging."

In addition, he said, wild bears are highly proactive in dealing with hot temperatures. They "cope with warmer months by digging cool day beds in the earth, seeking out the most protective shade in the wooded areas they call home, and by bathing in ponds, rivers, and streams."

In roadside zoos, bears may experience severe discomfort in the heat, Williamson said:

"Bears are particularly susceptible to heat stress due to their naturally thick fur and extra fat, which protect them during hibernation. They need shade and water to submerge in for thermoregulation, but are often confined in enclosures where they can't escape the heat in captivity. The stressors are compounded for the many captive bears who are confined on concrete, which radiates heat and can even burn bears' paws."

Wilson's Wild Animal Park in Winchester, Va., and Waccatee Zoo in Myrtle Beach, SC, are two examples of facilities that, from my perspective, give their bears neither enough suitable space nor appropriate ways to cool down in the summer. Neither is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

When a zoo or zoo-like facility is unaccredited, it is the U.S. Department of Agriculture that, at the federal level, becomes responsible for inspecting it to evaluate its care standards. In May of this year, the USDA inspected Waccatee Zoo. The inspection report, prepared by vet Lisa Macelderry, is troubling. Passages from the report include these:

"The space for each of 3 American black bears is insufficient to make normal postural and social adjustments for this species... The [two male] bears have few provisions for exercise, particularly regarding any substantive walking beyond about 5 or 6 strides in any direction, and no provisions for climbing, other than on top of the den box, which provides little overhead space..."

These two bears share a "shallow" water feature with two tigers and thus have "limited" access to cooling water, the report says.

Regarding the female bear, caged separately, the report notes that she "also lacks access to space with additional height and lacks a water feature" altogether.

According to the report, the Waccate Zoo has until June 2019 to correct these problems. So, I called Waccate Zoo to ask about plans to address the report. A women who said her name was Alison refused to speak with me, saying only, "We are a privately owned business and we don't want to be out on the Internet in stuff like that."

Here in my home state of Virginia, the two Asian black bears at Wilson's Wild Animal Park also face difficulties.

Brittany Peet, PETA's director of captive animal law enforcement, toured the park on Aug. 3 — a day that was in the high 80s with high humidity, she says. Via email, Peet said that she saw the zoo's two Asian black bears "baking in the sun, panting, and desperately trying not to overheat." Peet continued:

"One bear lay on her back, her stomach heaving, the other climbed into a metal trough that contained only enough water to wet her abdomen. I can't imagine how stifling the heat must've been with their thick fur coats."

Peet's comments are backed up by this short video taken at Wilson's and released by PETA this summer, on a June day that reached 89 degrees. One bear paces the concrete. One climbs into a water tub that is nearly, if not totally, empty.

I also sought the assessment of Mindy Babitz, captive bear welfare consultant, member of the steering committee of the AZA Bear Taxon Advisory Group, and vice president and treasurer for the Bear Care Group. Babitz has not visited this bear enclosure in person, and cannot evaluate the inner den where the bears sometimes go. Based on her experience with captive bears, she can, however, assess the outdoor concrete pen area that is visible in photographs and on video.

By email, she told me that that area differs from one which would provide "good welfare for a captive Asiatic black bear."

"From what can (or rather cannot) be seen in the outdoor enclosure, it is clear [the bears] do not have opportunities to carry out the majority of [their] living strategies or species-specific behaviors in this enclosure...When bears are not housed in adequate environments and not given the opportunities to express natural behaviors, frustration and stress result. Chronic frustration and stress can lead to abnormal behaviors, changes in brain chemistry, and poor health (mental and physical)."

I also called Wilson's Wild Animal Park to inquire about how the bears are kept and whether they have access to water pools to keep cool in the summer. The man who answered didn't identify himself, but repeated this to my two questions: "They are kept according to the regulations set by Department of Agriculture."

When I asked for his name, the line went dead. I called back, explaining that our call had been dropped. "It didn't get dropped," he told me. "I hung up because I was done with the interview."

I followed up with the USDA's Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist in the APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) division. Espinosa explained by email that the USDA's job is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, and sent me paperwork that showed the latest inspection of Wilson's Wild Animal Park carried out in Jan. 2017 indicated no out-of-compliance violations when it comes to the Act's requirements for bears. (This isn't to say that the park was in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act across the board. The report, prepared by vet Gloria McFadden, noted that the zoo's two lions are kept in an enclosure not properly secured against their escape.)

Why is Wilson's Wild Animal Park not out of compliance, when the eyewitness account and video furnished by PETA clearly suggest to me that the bears lack adequate room to move or water features in which to cool? In a phone call, Peet told me that the Animal Welfare Act has no bear-specific regulations — that is, nothing in the regulations that the USDA enforces (with the exception of regulations for polar bears) takes into bears' species-specific needs for space or thermoregulation.

I asked Espinosa if it's correct that the USDA does not require zoos to offer bears water features (such as tubs in which to cool off) in the summer or non-concrete space to move around because the Animal Welfare Act specifically does not require this. She repeated that the USDA's job is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act.

What do I make of this? My conclusion is this: Even when the Animal Welfare Act is followed, bears may not live in conditions that most of us would find reasonable for such large, intelligent, and magnificent animals to flourish. This fact isn't really all that surprising: According to wording on the USDA's own website, the Animal Welfare Act is about enforcement of "'minimum standards of care and treatment" for animals — or, rather, some animals.

PETA has rescued 60 bears from what they consider unsuitable conditions over the last five years.

What can we ourselves do, if we find bears living in zoo conditions that we believe to be inadequate for them to flourish? We can speak up and tell the zoo owners our concerns — and withhold from those zoos our admission dollars.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape