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Polar Bear – an Introduction

It is amongst the largest predators on the planet. It lives across the Antarctic and is also called White Bear or Ice Bear. They have thick fur that helps them stay warm in harsh conditions. Beneath the fur is a thick layer of fat too which also helps with insulation. The fur is so ubiquitous on their bodies that even their paws are not left.

Fur growing on their paws not only helps them with surviving cold surfaces but also makes them have a firm grip. Black skin helps them stay warm by absorbing the sun’s rays, because we know black is a great absorbent of heat.

For food, seals are their main prey. They would consume even a carcass of a dead whale if they do not find anything else. To reproduce, female polar bears make dens to protect themselves from the deadly Arctic. They also hibernate during winters.

Polar Bear

Lifespan in Captivity

The question that often comes to the minds of the public is that how long do polar bears live in captivity. It is an important question and tells us that people are concerned about these carnivores in zoos.

However, there is no need to worry, as polar bears go on and live much longer in zoos than they do in the Arctic wilderness. In the Arctic, they are not expected to live beyond 25 years, On the other hand in zoos, this number could go up to 35 years. In one instance, the number reached up to 41 years, for a bear called Debby.

Yes, that is true, and with good reasons. The most important reason, arguably, is that they are fed properly and timely. They do not have to hunt around for food, which they might not even find. For instance, if they cannot find a seal, their luck rests with a carcass.

What if no whale has died in those days and bears cannot find anything else either? In such conditions, surviving becomes increasingly difficult, and sometimes even impossible. Zoos make sure polar bears do not have to face anything like that under their watch.

The second most important reason for their longer lives in zoos is the absence of any confrontation. Anybody with even an iota of knowledge of wildlife knows how precarious and deadly the conditions could get. When resources get scarce, fighting your way to getting them seems to be the only right path. Remember, there are no laws in the jungle to keep things in check.

However, in zoos, polar bears live in isolated spaces where there are no chances of confrontation. Older bears are therefore naturally protected in such conditions. On the other hand, in the wilderness, they cannot keep up with the harsh conditions with the loss of agility and strength.

The Provided Diet in Zoos

The diet of polar bears in the wild consists of 90-95% fats. That is because they need them to build a thick layer of fat for insulation. As we have already discussed, this layer keeps them warm throughout the winters.

In zoos, however, those high amounts of fat are not required because the weather is much better. During captivity, their diet only has around 10% fats because that is all they need. In the wild, bears eat seals and carcasses of dead animals. When in captivity, they are fed a balanced diet.

Since polar bears are carnivores, they need a diet with lots of meat in it. The polar bear zoo diet is 60% dry food. The rest of it, 40%, comes from fish such as trout, herring, and caplin. Dog kibble and some vegetables are also added to it. Once or twice a week, cow femur bones and frozen rabbits are also fed. Polar bears are also fond of carrots. As a snack, carrots not only fill them up but also keep their teeth clean.

An important thing to consider here is that the diet of a polar bear in captivity depends upon its size, weight, health, age, and some other factors. A dietary expert, therefore, is hired for these tasks by zoos for feeding the polar bears properly.

Thomas Kokta

Hibernation in Zoos

Do polar bears hibernate in captivity? Do they hibernate in the same manner, or their habits go through a transformation? Bears hibernate to survive the winters. There is no need for them to do that during captivity because they are being fed consistently in zoos. Things are a bit different for pregnant females, as they still hibernate during winters even when in captivity.

Despite the better feeding in the zoos, bears might still hibernate because of the habit their species has developed over the centuries. It is important to note there that bears spend most of their day sleeping anyway. Naturally, the hibernation period starts from Autumn and ends when Spring begins. It ends during Spring because the food sources start becoming abundant again during that time.

Bears show similar habits in the zoos too, even if they are not completely hibernating. For instance, from October to April, bears become slow and lethargic. Visitors to the zoo can notice this behavior change

Polar Bears in Zoos Around the World

Since we have already discussed basic aspects of the life of a polar bear during captivity, let us dig a little deeper and discuss zoos and the polar bears living inside them. According to Bear Conservation, a UK-based organization dedicated to the protection of polar bears, there are currently 152 facilities around the globe holding polar bears. Most of them are zoos, however, they also include parks and aquariums. One of them is a circus too. The number of polar bears held in these facilities is around 315. Given below are some of the countries and zoos around the world that currently have polar bears:

The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, Canada:

Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat is a unique place dedicated solely to conservation and research on polar bears. The Habitat currently has three male polar bears named Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk. It is a non-profit charity to do research on bears and conserve their population.


Let us look at the diet the bears are fed in the Cochrane Habitat. They are given high-quality foods that include moose, mackerel, seal blubber, seal meat, and seal oil. They are also provided lots of fresh foods, especially in summers.

The purpose of giving them fresh fruits and vegetables in summers is to engage their sensory nerves. By doing this, they feel full without eating many calories so that they do not gain too much fat that is not needed in summers for insulation.

The Habitat:

There are five enclosures, which make up around 24 acres of natural habitat for the bears. There is a lake in the largest enclosure too to provide a water body bears adore so much. Bears can go wherever they like in the habitat and can sometimes gather in the same enclosure, which is good for them both physically and mentally.

polar bear and cubs

Training Sessions:

Regular training sessions are held to and bears are free to participate in them or otherwise. The animal care staff can sometimes reinforce particular behaviors which can have different purposes, such as improving the health of bears or for research. Moreover, these training sessions also act as a communicative bridge between the bears and the staff.

Medical Care:

State of the art medical care is also provided at the Cochrane Habitat, and most bears participate in the checkup without hesitation, such as by showing their paws or opening their jaws. A full body checkup is performed on every bear once every two weeks.

All of the blood samples and swabs are collected without the need for sedation because bears are trained to cooperate with the staff.

Research Collaborations:

They have collaborations with leading institutions and organizations around the world such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Toronto, York University, University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University, University of Washington, and Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW).

Their research focuses on understanding polar bears and their interaction with the environment. This has become even more significant given the changes occurring due to climate change. To make others aware of their research and educate people around the globe regarding their work, they hold virtual talks.


The environment of this habitat provides an excellent opportunity for scientists and experts to understand bears properly. They have access to all the facilities that a wild bear does. Since they are confined in a limited space, accessing them is much easier than going around in the wild and finding a wild bear for studying.

As they move around doing their daily exercises, they are being studied by experts and their behavior is being noted constantly. With this high-quality behavioral data, it is easier to create models for further research and understanding.

They are also training the indigenous populations to interact with bears positively. With ice sheets melting away due to global warming, the interactions between indigenous communities and polar bears are on the rise.

Hence, the teams at Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat teach them how to handle such situations. For instance, if a bear is causing any problems, it can be trapped instead of killing it. Similarly, people are also trained to rescue cubs that have been abandoned by their mothers.

Training Sessions:

Regular training sessions are held to and bears are free to participate in them or otherwise. The animal care staff can sometimes reinforce particular behaviors which can have different purposes, such as improving the health of bears or for research. Moreover, these training sessions also act as a communicative bridge between the bears and the staff.

Research Projects

Some of the research projects they have done recently are:

1- “Why do Polar Bears Eat Seaweed?” This study was done in partnership with Dalhousie University.

2- “How do we Locate Polar Bears on Ice?” with The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

3- “How can we Better Track All Bears?” in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

polar bear mother and cubs

San Diego Zoo, USA

The most famous amongst the zoos with polar bears in the US is the San Diego Zoo, located in San Diego, California. It is one amongst the largest zoos in the world. They currently have three female polar bears named Chinook, Taqtiq, and Kalluk.

In the summer of 1917, they received their first polar bear. Since then, they have made wonderful arrangements for these omnivores. Through the underwater viewing room, visitors can see how these Arctic bruins swim around and enjoy their time in the zoo. The tundra created for them is vast and has a large pool for providing bears the perfect habitat.

The most interesting thing about this zoo is the Experience Wall. Here, even the glass between the bears and the humans is removed. All that remains between them is a mesh wall. Kalluk and Taqtiq are brother and sister.

Their mother was shot dead and a team of scientists rescued them. Since that, they have grown up in this zoo. Chinook was also an orphan and was brought into the zoo back in 1996. Since Kalluk is male, it is the biggest of the bunch. Standing on his hind feet, he is as tall as 10 feet and weighs approximately 581 kilograms. It is also the largest polar bear in captivity, globally.

The zoo also has a Polar Bear Plunge. It is a project to educate visitors interactively. It has four-D models of the arctic. It shows how the ice has been melting over the years due to climate change, endangering the natural habitats of the polar bears.

The model also provides a Carbon Graph. The graph shows how carbon dioxide levels have been changing in the atmosphere, driving global warming. That warming has ultimately led to the destruction of the Arctic home of the polar bears.

The Toronto Zoo, Canada:

Let us visit Canada where we have the Toronto Zoo, another great establishment and one of the largest in the world too. Here we have polar bears, among them, 3 are females named Aurora, Juno, and Nikita, aged 21, 10, and 21 respectively.

The two males are called Hudson and Humphrey, aged 10 and 8 respectively. The tundra of the bear spans across 10 acres. There is a pool that bears use to swim and relax in the water. There is a rock and grass too. A waterfall has also been designed there to emulate the Arctic environment. For pregnant females, there is a special maternity area.

The Beijing Zoo, China:

The Beijing Zoo located in Beijing is the largest in China and has six polar bears in total. Among them, two are females named AnAn, aged 26, and MiMi, aged 12. The names of the males are Ji, LeLe, PingPing, and Samson. Their ages are 12, 12, 26, and 11, respectively. The zoo provides excellent facilities such as nutritional diet and healthy diet, excursion points, and medical care.

Berlin Zoological Garden, Germany:

Berlin Zoological Garden is the oldest and the largest zoo in Germany. Its history goes back to 1845 when it received its first bear. With its partnership with the Karlsruhe Zoo, a breeding group was created so that the population of bears in the zoo could be kept at sustainable levels.

It was home to the legendary and the most popular polar bear to have ever lived, Knut. His mother abandoned Knut. However, it was rescued by a team and spent some 44 days in an incubator. Knut had a special diet to account for his general weakness and his small size. It consisted of baby formula and some cod liver oil. He was fed every two hours.

When it made its first public appearance, the day was declared as the Knut Day by the media and the zoo administration. Knut was responsible for bringing droves of visitors to the Berlin Zoo, who wanted to have sight of a polar bear brought up by human beings.

Knut alone raised $5 million in revenues through tickets, and documentaries made on him. Knuth died at the age of 4 by collapsing in the pool. Later investigations revealed he suffered from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

Detroit Zoo, USA:

The Detroit Polar Bears are located in the Detroit Zoo, among them 3 are females and 1 is male. The names of the female bears are Suka, Astra, and Larke, and the male is called Nuka. This zoo is an interesting place with lots of beneficial facilities for its polar bear population.

The Arctic Ring of Life is 4 acres of space that houses the polar bears. It is North America’s largest polar bear habitat with a stunning resemblance to their natural habitats. It has spaces for both indoor and outdoor activities and is spectacularly interactive.

There is a 70-foot long tunnel in the Arctic Ring of Life called Frederick and Barbara Erb Polar Passage. It passes through the water underneath and visitors can go through it to see the bears swim. After this tunnel comes appears an ice cave.

Visitors have to pass through it to enter the Exploration Station, providing further indoor viewing. During Summers, when polar bears need a cooler environment. For that, the Arctic Ring of Life has a special side, which is cold even during the summers.

Sea World, Australia:

Located in Queensland, Sea World is Australia’s only zoo to have bears. The special habitat for keeping polar bears is called Polar Bear Shores, designed by keeping their Arctic lifestyle in mind. The way it has been built also allows bears to play or rest whenever they want.

The zoo currently has 2 males called Hudson and Nelson and 1 female called Mishka. Nelson and Hudson are both 18 years old while Mishka is 4 years old. They are fed olive oil, chicken, trevally, pork, tuna, watermelon, sardines, herring, and veal. They enjoy the ice piles, take naps in the sun, and like to jump from rocks. Freshwater streams in the zoo allow them to have a fun time under freely flowing water.

Polar Bear Mother and Two Cubs

Assiniboine Park Zoo, Canada:

Let us take a look at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. It has world-class facilities for polar bears. The zoo administration has successfully emulated the natural habitat by providing all the excursions that bear find in the Arctic.

In this stimulating environment, they can exercise, socialize, and explore their surroundings. Not only that, but the zoo also has a prestigious research center on polar bears, named the Leatherdale Polar Bear Conservation Center.

It is also a transitional facility, meaning bears first have to spend some time here before going out in the open. They currently have 9 polar bears, and among them, there is an orphaned pair. Their names are Baffin and Willow. They are unrelated; one is male and the other is female. Interestingly, their names were picked after conducting an online public poll.

Nanu and Sisuq both were rescued back in 2016, one week apart. Both were observed alone in the Churchill area and were rescued by the zoo’s rescue team. In the case of Sisuq, the team tried to connect him with some female bears in the area but all in vain.

Finally, they decided to bring him to the zoo. Another bear, York was rescued from Churchill by the zoo’s rescue team. The cub was around one year old at that time and would not have survived without motherly care.

An online campaign was started to support the rescue efforts and $18000 was raised for the rescue team. It was named after an area that has polar bears dens, called York Factory First Nation. Similarly, Star, Kaska, and Aurora were also rescued from different areas where they would not have survived on their own. The administration also provides an excellent polar bear zoo diet to keep them healthy and fit.

So, these were some of the most popular and largest zoos that currently have polar bears. Given the threat of climate change that is decimating natural habitats for polar bears, the importance of these facilities has increased. The experts and the staff working in these zoos are dedicated to saving this already endangered species and they deserve praises and credit for doing so.