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Bears in Captivity: Roadside Attractions

From PAWS Performing Animal Welfare Society
August 2023

As part of our Year of the Bear campaign, PAWS is drawing attention to an animal that deserves more of our respect and protection in the wild and in captivity. Each month, we provide interesting and sometimes little-known facts about bears... their intelligence, agility, and complex behaviors. 

caged Bear

In previous newsletters, we’ve written about amazing bear attributes, their intelligence, high activity level, large home ranges, tool use, and strength. But what happens when bears are forced to live in conditions they were never meant to be in?

About 1,000 bears in the U.S. are used for entertainment or confined in dismal roadside attractions. These attractions, including bear “pits” (pictured) and zoos, confine bears in deprived conditions that cause physical and mental suffering. Some of these places may sell interactions with bear cubs, allowing the public to feed, hold, and take photos with them. (The cubs are often later disposed of and replaced with new cubs.) Others offer circus-style bear shows.

Roadside attractions generally confine bears in small, concrete-floored enclosures, with no natural features or opportunity to engage in important behaviors. They may be denied proper veterinary care and fed nutritionally deficient diets. Here are some of the problems that bears experience in these facilities:

Damage to the feet
Bears have not evolved to walk on hard and ungiving surfaces like concrete which causes damage to bears’ feet. Foot pads may crack and become callused, leaving them prone to infection. Chronic infection can lead to osteomyelitis, an infection that breaks down the bones of the feet and frequently results in euthanasia.

Bears kept on concrete or hard, compacted soil are prone to developing arthritis prematurely. This progressive and painful disease can affect the neck, spine, and joints.

Lack of space and opportunities for meaningful exercise, along with an improper diet, can lead to obesity, affecting overall health and welfare. The pressure of additional weight on the joints and spine can contribute to arthritis.

Abnormal repetitive behaviors
Abnormal repetitive behaviors (ARBs) such as pacing and bar (cage) biting are indicative of poor welfare. They are a bear’s attempt to cope with impoverished and stressful living conditions. ARBs can also affect a bear’s physical health, promoting arthritis and dental disease.

Improper diet
As omnivores, bears actively forage for a variety of seasonally available foods. Roadside attractions often feed inappropriate diets to bears, such as low grade dog food and kibble, because it is cheap. Some facilities allow the public to throw food to the bears, with no monitoring to assess an animal’s food intake. Improper diets are associated with health problems such as obesity, dental disease, ill health, and premature death.

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