polar bear

Berlin Zoo's Super Star Needs Bigger Habitat

Berlin Zoo's megastar polar bear, Knut (the zoo's equivalent of a studio produced boy band), turned two  on Friday, December 5.  However, the celebration was a quiet affair.  Happy Birthday, Knut!

News that the bear needs a larger enclosure as he reaches maturity has the bear's biggest fans all atwitter.  Due to the omnipresent credit crunch, the Zoo's intention to renovate the bear's home have all but disappeared.  Instead, the Zoo is looking for potential new homes at European zoos far and wide.


I'm impressed to hear the Zoo is willing to give up its 27% increase in attendance in exchange for "doing the right thing"--for the bear itself (to have a healthier and happier life), and for the species as a whole (to be given a chance to breed). 

Read the whole story here.  There's a nice little video along with the article that I can't seem to get into the post.  Check it out.

Louisville Opens Phase 2 of Glacier Run

As part of the concept team at PGAV that developed Glacier Run with Louisville Zoo, I am excitedly awaiting the opening of Phase 3 of Glacier Run--the Polar Bear, Sea Lion, Sea Otter, and Stellar's Sea Eagle exhibits.  However, since phase 3 is still not under construction yet due to lack of funding (get on their webpage and donate people!), we'll have to enjoy the opening of a refurbished Siberian Tiger exhibit nearby the site. 

Water play

Phase 1 of the exhibit area, a themed water play area, was opened last summer, and has since been packed with visitors daily.  Phase 2, the tiger renovations, included updating the mid-century enclosure to be more visitor and keeper friendly.  The old exhibit was uninviting, having 15' tall concrete walls all along the public walkway.  The viewing area looked like a bunker.  Now, the visitor area has been softened with pergolas and plantings.  Training panels have been added so the public can get a first-hand view of the extensive behavioral training and enrichment the zoo conducts with its tigers. 

In fact, Louisville Zoo is on the forefront of animal training and has a tradition of building enrichment and training opportunities into exhibits as a major component (see the Islands exhibit).  The Zoo's philosophy is to turn the zoo "inside out" so all visitors can clearly see the extraordinary care given to the animals by the staff.

In Phase 3, you'll see much of the same.  In concept development, the staff's first concern was to make the environment as complex and enriching as possible with the small amount of space available to the exhibit.  This created not only a complex exhibit, but also a complex holding and enrichment facility with tunnels, stairs, a foraging room, and a maze of transfer chutes.  In the final design, most of these elements made it, enriching not only the animals' lives but also the enhancing the experience for the visitors. 

Old Polar Bear ExhibitThe new Glacier Run exhibit area will replace the current mid-century polar bear exhibit, and take over the adjacent hillside.  The old exhibit was an excellent example of modernist design infiltrating zoos.  The exhibit was more of a sculputural piece than a proper animal enclosure, and the animals were clearly affected.  Stereotypy was seen, and animals rarely used their pool.  The exhibit was entirely concrete with no natural substrates whatsoever.  The new exhibit will be greatly appreciated by the bears. 

Check out the Louisville Zoo's Capital Campaign page for extensive information on the upcoming exhibit, and ways to contribute.

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The Polar Bear Controversy

If you google "polar bear" + death + zoo, you'll find a slew of polar bear deaths over the past few years.  Most, if not all, were not due to neglect on the zoo's part, but were accidents or medical issues.  However, because of public and animal activism outcry, zoos have had to take a long, hard look at whether or not they should continue to display polar bears.  Recently, our firm has had the opportunity to work with several zoos on their new polar bear exhibits.  The impetus to create new habitats for these bears has stemmed both from public outcry and also from the recognition of the poor design of the bears' enclosures.  

Bear Pit in BerneHistorically, around the turn of the 20th century, bears of all kinds were held in a "bear pit."  Originally, these pits are exactly as they are named; rock enclosures with a depressed center where people can look down onto the bears.  Slowly, through the 1940s, the pit design evolved into more of an eye-to-eye enclosure, rather than a depression, where the bears' habitat is on similar grade to the visitor.  

Inspired by Carl Hagenbeck, moats were incorporated across the fronts Modern Bear Pit of these "modern pits" and allowed a more unobstructed view to the bears.  Exhibits are small, with little to no natural substrate, and generally include a small, five or six foot deep pool, ensuring the bears will be in view at all points along the open viewing rail.  Access to back-of-house dens directly connect to the back of the exhibit, tucked inside rocks, leaving a nice little den for the bear to sleep in away from the visitor.  

Until recently, these were the standard bear exhibits seen throughout zoos worldwide.  Luckily, whether out of concern for perception of care or well-being of the animals, zoos have started an exhibit design evolution of these exhibits.  

Along with increasing sizes of exhibits, zoos are incorporating underwater viewing, deep pools, shallow pools, natural streams, natural substrate for digging and denning, places to hide, cool rocks, fish shooters and more.  A lot of these recommendations are coming directly from the knowledgeable folks at the AZA Bear TAG.  

Detroit Zoo's Polar BearsPart of the controversy with the new exhibits, however, in terms of design, is the barriers. Until recently, USDA APHIS guidelines were the only standards available for any aspects of the polar bear exhibit design.  Horribly small minimums for dry area and pool surface area and depth were the only standards outlined in these regulations.  Barrier height was left to the zoo's discretion, averaging around 12' in height for walls and width and depth of moats.  

In response to the need for better guidelines, the AZA announced they'd be creating Standardized Guidelines for polar bears, outlining the zoo community's collective opinion on habitat design, including barriers.  At the same time, the province of Manitoba released an official document (which later became law, as I understand it), mandating exhibit minimums for any zoo hoping to receive a "polar bear donation" from the province (which is a major sector of polar bear habitat).  

From the Manitoba Conservation webpageThe policy specifies that only orphaned cubs will be donated to zoos, that cubs will not be captured specifically for donation to zoos, and that animals will only be donated to zoos that meet or exceed the specified standards.  

Procedures further require that the receiving zoo must enter into a contractual obligation to maintain the required facilities for the life of the bear... and to ensure that if the bear or offspring are transferred, the new facility also meets or exceeds the specified standards.  

The facility standards require, among other things, that barriers are 20' tall in the case of walls and depth of moats, and 20' wide for moats. 

The AZA guidelines released soon after did not follow these regulations and are recommending only 16' in height (and width of moats), with 20'distance from visitor viewing to bear area (16' moat plus 4' landscape buffer to handrail). 

The question for zoos now is:  Which do we follow? 

San Diego's Polar BearsMost bears in zoos are born in captivity, but a few still come from Canada as a "donation" due to the orphaned bear problem.  Zoos must now use their magic eight ball to determine if they will, in the future, take Canadian bears to fill their collection needs as older bears die, or if they should invest in better facilities for breeding.  Some zoos are deciding the costs of the extra 4' in barrier height do not fit their capital budget. 

Other zoos are choosing to delete polar bears from their collections completely, knowing the costs of updating exhibits are just too high for the benefit they would gain by keeping the animals.  

Either way, polar bears across the globe are getting new digs.  Hopefully, the public will applaud these changes, instead of taking aim at zoos lagging behind.  Only the magic eight ball can know for sure.

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