Wildlife charity Born Free is calling on politicians to phase out the importing, holding and breeding of the animals that “survive and thrive in some of the coldest and most extreme climates in the world in the Arctic North”.
European zoos have 151 polar bears, including 12 in the UK – eight at Yorkshire Wildlife Park and four at Highland Wildlife Park.
But the new study says the greenhouse gas emissions created by keeping polar bears in captivity is likely to be adding to the climate crisis.
The report authors suggest that, by keeping polar bears, zoos are doing more harm to the planet than good.
Zoos and wildlife parks say they are helping save the species as climate change erodes their habitats, and that temperatures in northern Britain are similar to those in the Arctic.
But the new report says most bear enclosures in zoos are made of concrete, whose production is shown to account for at least 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and steel which contributes a further 8 per cent.
It points out that in most cases, exhibits have a water filtration or purification system and industrial equipment to keep them cool inside – using large quantities of energy 24 hours a day, resulting in a high carbon footprint.
The report, Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos, also cites fuel use for harvest and delivery of polar bear food, refrigerants and transport, as well as fuel for fish trawlers, waste disposal services and fuel use by visitors as all contributing to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Removing polar bears from the wild both diminishes their ecosystem’s ability to provide services to the biosphere whilst adding to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” they say. “Animal welfare aside, this begs the question as to whether zoos are doing more harm than good to the ecology of the planet.”
Enclosures are so small that the stress of confinement for the animals is like a human sprinting in a wardrobe, which often causes abnormal behaviour, the report authors say.
In addition, polar bears “often suffer heat stress when temperatures exceed those in their natural habitat”.
Born Free, which says keeping the creatures in zoos is “an archaic, unethical and damaging practice”, says studies show that in the wild polar bears roam distances so vast they would cover an area the size of Austria – which is 160 million times the minimum space of 500sq m recommended by international authorities.
Polar bears’ lives are often cut short by inappropriate diets, according to the study, and several have died in zoos after consuming foreign objects.
But David Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs Highland Wildlife Park, said: “Evidence from animal care specialists and welfare scientists fed into the design of our charity’s polar bear habitats.
“They benefit hugely from the complex and stimulating natural environment of the Cairngorms National Park which, alongside an excellent standard of care from an expert team, provides for the bears’ physiological and psychological health.
“Visitors can clearly see the wide range of spaces our polar bears have access to including large ponds, natural vegetation and soft areas, with very little concrete and no energy required for climate control in the Scottish Highlands.”
Yorkshire Wildlife Park, which says it is the largest centre for polar bears outside Canada, declined to comment.
Will Travers, Born Free’s executive president, said: “The tragedy of keeping polar bears in captivity is not only that so little has been done to address the problems they endure, but that zoos actively perpetuate them.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We do not have any plans to ban the keeping of polar bears across the zoo sector.
“The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. All zoos have to comply with welfare requirements for the animals they keep – and Defra and the UK zoos expert committee are currently revising the secretary of state’s standards of modern zoos practice in order to bring them into line with current best practice on animal health, welfare, and husbandry, and on public safety standards.”
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