As a former curator, as well as Director of Conservation Programs at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC),  I was concerned by this footage recently recorded by a visitor to the Portage, AK open-range zoological park, which doubles as a refuge or sanctuary for orphaned wildlife. 

The short clip without much context, captures an interaction between two sibling adult North American brown bears at the AWCC. I was once responsible for the physical health and well-being of these bears and the collective animal population at this 200-acre open-range conservation breeding facility, which is a tremendous resource for locals and a popular attraction for international tourists.

Rescued as orphans, these “grizzly ambassadors” are among the oldest residents at the Center. I am concerned that if such conflict as shown in this clip persists or escalates, potential for serious injurious behavior exists. Brown bears are as tough and tenacious as carnivorous mammals go. It is hard to say if “Patron” sustained any injury. She appears more than ambulatory, but animals hide injury well. Nonetheless, the video clip shows a fiercely aggressive interaction.

This footage was sent to me yesterday by an Anchorage area-based bear expert soliciting my opinion. The clip was directed to his attention by a frequent and concerned local visitor to the captive wildlife preserve located near the ski resort town of Girdwood.

While I still have more question than answers, behaviorists know a lot more about the psychological welfare needs of bears in captivity than when I was a zoo keeper in the 1990s. For example, Montudoin and Le Page (2004) contributed significantly to our understanding of how captive bears respond to enrichment. The researchers conducted behavioral assays examining aberrant behavior at nearly 30 European zoos housing 66 Eurasian brown bears and found that while some “unnatural” behavior may be related to age, housing more than two animals in an enclosure together increases potential for social conflict.

Aware of this at the AWCC, we were typically quite vigilant and proactive in regard to socializing unfamiliar individuals, habituating them to their human care providers while cognizant of sociality and behavioral dynamics of any bears sharing space.

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Regardless of the quantity of acreage provided or how “natural” an enclosure may appear, quality of space is the most critical factor influencing welfare.  By quality, I mean the environment must be stimulating. Natural enclosures are often perceived by visitors to open range zoos and sanctuaries as more suitable for wild animal occupants than naturalistic enclosures found in conventional zoos. However, an enclosure that offers a paucity of stimulation may promote the development and persistent of zoochosis.

This is not unlike a canine companion whose outdoor experience is limited to the owner’s backyard. Without novel environmental stimulation and a paucity of social enrichment (opportunities to socialize with other dogs), our family pets can become bored rather quickly. Bears are opportunistic omnivores and although their social lives in nature are often described as a solitary, other than a sow with cubs, subadults and adult males can display a high degree of sociality dependent upon seasonal influence and availability of food resources. In captivity, bears require far more psychological stimulation than most people can imagine, especially if they are limited to just one or two companions.

Zoos recognize the behavioral plasticity of bears from the work of field biologists dating back to the work of the Craigheads. There is strong potential for captive individuals to exhibit persistence of unwanted or abnormal behavior when they lack adequate stimulation. Reputable and accredited zoos regard enrichment programs as an industry-wide standard.  These behavioral and environmental enrichment practices are designed to reduce stereotypy and inactivity in bears, which are particularly prone to developing aberrant behavior. Hence, zoo keepers provide food enrichment, and often multiple times a day on unpredictable schedules to keep bears psychologically stimulated.

So while a large natural enclosure is stimulating in some regards, to a grizzly bear it such an environment can quickly become static and psychologically “vapid”.  Both “natural” enclosures, just like naturalistic and other artificial exhibits, lack the dynamic ecological processes of open spaces and restrict bears from developing and exhibiting a full repertoire of natural behaviors.  In captivity, they do not typically forage since the bulk of their diet is provided for them. So they have ample “down time” compared to their wild counterparts. This can be detrimental to their wellbeing, but it can also be addressed (Grandia et al. 2001).

“Bears are particularly susceptible to the development of stereotypy, a propensity possibly related to their complex feeding behaviors and large home ranges in the wild, neither of which can be fully reproduced in captivity. Thus, even when maintained in large naturalistic enclosures, bears often display stereotypy.” ( Vickery and Mason 2003).

Natural enclosures may appear to replicate nature but natural enclosures can be limiting in certain respects and require more externally sourced provisions. This is especially true for sentient creatures with the largest brain size of any terrestrial carnivoran (i.e., grizzly bears).

Conventional zoos may display bears in naturalistic enclosures, but the captive habitats are purposefully intended to be highly functional, durable and hygienic to permit husbandry managers to care for these large carnivores. While bear grottos have increasingly been modified and replaced with natural substrates and natural vegetation, when and where possible, they do permit other forms of behavioral and environmental enrichment unavailable in a natural enclosure. Near the heart of Anchorage, for example, the Alaska Zoo displays some of its resident bears on artificial substrates and they do an exemplary job fostering orphans and caring for permanent residents.

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While spacious and comprised of a sample of natural vegetation and substrates and water features of the Alaskan bush, even the beautiful AWCC exhibit, the largest on the campus, is limiting as a resource for meeting the biological and psychological requirements of grizzly bears. In addition to occasional roadkill, the grizzlies at the AWCC are fed the same “bear chow” supplemented with vegetable matter as is typical for brown bears in zoos worldwide, contrary to what some guests may think.

While opportunity to choose to interact with different conspecifics (e.g., other bears) can be stimulating, other bears can also be an obvious source of stress, particularly for reproductively active populations under the influence of seasonal hormonal changes.  Unlike wild (aka free-ranging) bears, captive individuals can not get away from one and other. This can be inherently stressful. Hence, zoological parks typically separate animals by calling them off-exhibit nightly or as needed.

At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and conventional zoos I have been affiliated with, we aimed to enhance psychological well-being and mitigate stress 24/7. This is an industry-wide welfare mission and a ubiquitous practice for reducing the potential for displaced aggression and other deleterious and aberrant behaviors like stereotypic pacing.

We rescued and reared cubs of the year as advanced in age as 9-months- old, and at weights exceeding 90 lb. or more. These cubs often require more work in some ways to ease their habituation to people and acclimation to captive settings.  While coastal brown bears at 9-months-old are formidable, the individuals in this video clip were actually rescued at a younger age, typical of when cubs of the year are in need of foster homes. So, they were much more tractable to begin with.

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The siblings were eventually introduced to a smaller subadult female who has long been considered the “subordinate” sow. She is from the Interior of Alaska. The brother and sister quickly surpassed her in size, as might be expected for brown bears originating from a coastal population.  And due to sexual dimorphism, the male (JB) is considerably larger.

Former AWCC board member and staffer Steve Mendive and I addressed the management pros and cons of spacious enclosures as co-chairs of the inaugural meeting of the Large Bear Enclosure Working Group hosted at the 20th International Conference on Bear Research & Management. We reported back to the Founding Director Emeritus Mike Miller on some international practices, which ultimately advanced the welfare initiatives for our captive population of brown, as well as our American black bears.

In the footage, the male (boar) “JB” appears to lift “Patron”, his sibling and “dominant female”, off the ground in a highly combative altercation in close proximity to the “subordinate” female. I have seen a wild polar bear in the surf at Point Barrow handle a seal carcass this way.

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For an established adult population of human-reared, reproductively incapacitated  adult individuals, I was struck by this video. The AWCC is the only facility to rescue, acclimate and foster North American brown bear (aka “grizzly”) orphans specifically designated for placement at zoos accredited by both the US-based Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the European Association of Zoos & Aquariums (EAZA).

Similar to the Alaska Zoo, the AWCC had particular and seasoned experience transitioning bears afforded a second chance at life in human care to accredited facilities It is both rewarding and challenging to serve these sentient animals in need and at times in their lives when they were perhaps most vulnerable and certainly traumatized. As a consequence of being very defensive, handling them without restrictive barriers, makes them potentially quite dangerous. So we took extra precautions to acclimate them.

The campus is located just outside of Anchorage—the only metropolitan area on the planet where wild grizzly bears are commonly observed to wander and are considered residents. So while we acclimated orphans and provided lifelong care for resident black and brown bears, we also studied and learned from incidents where free-ranging adult bears sought access to our resident bear enclosures.

While I have seen captive bears engage on very rare occasions in this aggressive  manner, they were often mother-reared, intact (not neutered) and rarely old enough to be participants in established social units in captivity. For hand-raised, “reproductively incapacitated” adult grizzly bears carefully introduced, the altercation in the video, if not isolated, is still disconcerting.

Many visitors to the center are quite familiar with wild grizzly bear biology and behavior as state residents of Alaska. And while they may be familiar with male-male aggression in wild bears (related to competition for females) or disharmony due to competition for food resources, just bringing this to my attention warrants consideration. We don’t want people to leave the zoological facilities concerned about animal welfare and safety.

The aggressor in the footage (JB), while not tractable (aka handleable) is typically laidback and quite popular among the animal ambassadors at the AWCC. He could be the most professionally photographed brown bear in North America with an impressive print publication portfolio.

Having been featured in this relatively recent commercial  with Paul Nicklen from within the bear enclosure, you get a sense that JB may be more amicable than your average bear.

Note: By definition, the organization, which is most recognized for conservation breeding programs, operates as a zoo. Most recently and prior to the departure of its founding executive director, the AWCC was recognized for its instrumental role in the reintroduction/recovery of wood bison to the state of Alaska. In partnership with the USFWS and the ADF&G, the AWCC contributed to the rewilding of the largest terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. They also have breeding programs in place for other ungulate species, including muskoxen and reintroduction efforts for small carnivores.

Select References:

Montaudouin, S., G. Le Pape (2005) Comparison between 28 zoological parks: stereotypic and social behaviours of captive brown bears (Ursus arctos), Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 92, Issues 1–2 

Hutchins, M. (2004) “Zoos vs. Sanctuaries”

Schaul, J. M. Hutchins (2012), “Former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation & Science Discusses the State of Zoos & their Future, Nat Geo Voices 

Photos of of Jordan Schaul at AWCC by Doug Lindstrand

Dr. Jordan Schaul (Bio) | | |

Select Contributions on Brown Bears by Jordan Schaul

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