Polar Bears in Zoos

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See the accomplishments of PBI's network of Arctic Ambassador Center zoos, aquariums, and museums, which are committed to providing quality care for their polar bears - and to reducing CO2.

Quality modern zoos have come a long way from the concrete cages of the past, housing polar bears in well-designed exhibits that include rushing waterfalls, chilled pools stocked with fish, enormous swimming pools, and gravel pits where the bears can dig.

These zoos also offer enrichment activities designed to encourage the expression of natural behaviors and play. Such activities are good for the bears—and help better engage guests to make changes to help polar bear habitat.

Polar Bears International funded a landmark, two-year study to learn how to solve the problem of stereotypic behavior in zoo bears. PBI's Polar Bear Well-being Committee creates guidelines for zoos with polar bears that incorporate the study's findings to ensure quality care.

History of polar bears in captivity. The earliest known captive polar bear was housed by Ptolemy II, king of ancient Egypt (285-246 B.C.), in his private zoo in Alexandria. Romans probably also kept polar bears.

  • In 57 A.D., Calpurnius wrote of bears pitted against seals in a flooded amphitheater.
  • Harold the Fair-haired of Norway received a mother and cubs in 880 A.D. from a hunter and rewarded the man with a ship filled with wood.
  • Early maps led to sources of polar bears and white falcons. Viking hunters killed mother bears and caught her cubs by attracting them to her pelt.
  • Early rulers in Denmark, England, Germany, and Damascus kept captive polar bears.
  • In 1874, America's first zoo opened in Philadelphia. Its bear pits were its most popular attraction.

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