An urban sanctuary for bears or cynical showbiz?

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Animal welfare campaigners yesterday condemned London Zoo's reintroduction of bears to its newly refurbished Mappin Terrace, which opens to the public on Saturday.

Bears have not been seen at the zoo in Regent's Park since the Mappin Terrace was closed 12 years ago because the historic buildings were deemed unsafe and in need of major structural repairs.

At a cost of more than pounds 160,000, the site has been transformed into Bear Mountain, a 2,300 square metre enclosure billed as "the world's largest urban zoo playground". Gone are the stark concrete slopes and bars which dated back to 1913. In their place are ropes, trees, undergrowth and "toys" for the bears' entertainment. Furthermore, London Zoo has introduced other species into the bears' enclosure in order to simulate natural conditions. They include muntjac deer, peacocks and a colony of leaf-eating monkeys. But the critics are not satisfied.

Jonathan Pearce, campaigns director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), described as "cynical" the zoo's importation of two Sri Lankan Sloth bears from Warsaw Zoo in Poland. Their real intention, he said, was not conservation, but to attract crowds. "They claim they are going to breed them, but really it's just a drive to get a cute attraction," he said.

Dr Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist, insisted that however good the conditions, bears would always suffer in captivity. Dismissing the zoo's argument, he said: "London Zoo is totally about showbiz."

Had London Zoo really wanted to help with conservation, it should have turned Mappin Terrace into a bear sanctuary, according to Mr Pearce.

The 12-year-old jet black Sloth bears, a male and a female - the only ones in the UK - which now live at Bear Mountain are expected to be "a big hit among visitors". "Bears are incredibly popular with visitors and we are thrilled that they are now back at Regent's Park," said Dr Jo Gipps, director of London Zoo.

Doug Richardson, assistant curator of mammals at the zoo, said the enclosure was built to give the animals the chance to develop their mental faculties.

"Food is placed strategically at the top of a log or platform to encourage the bears to climb on to it. They have obstacles and they adore plastic toys, including a traffic cone," he said.

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