Archive for Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kansas City Zoo polar bear’s repetitive swimming worries some

September 23, 2010


— Look, kids, here comes the polar bear!

Here he comes around again!

And again.


Nikita the polar bear spends much of his days just swimming in circles in his new $11 million home at the Kansas City Zoo. He’s beautiful to behold underwater through the huge glass windows. But visitors are beginning to wonder about his repetitive behavior.

“It saddens me to watch that bear doing laps,” said Kyle Bradley of Raytown, a zoo supporter. “I stopped counting them at 30.”

It is called stereotypic behavior and it is, unfortunately, common among polar bears and other species in captivity. Sometimes it takes the form of pacing or swaying or excessive grooming. But Robert Buchanan, president and CEO of the conservation group Polar Bears International, predicted that Nikita’s behavior would change as he becomes acclimated to his new exhibit, which opened last month.

“The animal is just burning off energy,” Buchanan said Wednesday during a visit to Kansas City and the zoo. “The animal is doing fine.”

Zoos have tried a variety of approaches to grapple with stereotypic behavior. Buchanan’s organization sponsored a major study into the issue.

“We’ve got some ideas that we can try,” Randy Wisthoff, the Kansas City Zoo’s director, said Wednesday shortly before an official ribbon-cutting for the polar bear exhibit. “We’ll see what we can do to break him of that habit.”

Wisthoff said zookeepers will try switching out Nikita’s “toys,” such as flotation barrels and balls, at midday to keep his interest. Zookeeper Andrea O’Daniels is traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, this weekend to learn more about polar bears.

In addition, Wisthoff and general curator Liz Harmon recently returned from a zoo industry conference in Houston where they conferred with other institutions and scholars about polar bear husbandry.

Nikita is alone in his exhibit, but males in the wild lead largely solitary lives until they are ready to mate. At nearly 4 years old, Nikita is not yet sexually mature.

New polar bear exhibits are vast improvements over the old concrete and bars once commonly found in zoos. Kansas City’s exhibit meets or exceeds modern standards. In fact, at 9,568 square feet it is 77 percent larger than specified in guidelines by the province of Manitoba, which are considered on the forefront of polar bear husbandry.

The exhibit has a 140,000-gallon pool and waterfall as well as foraging and grassy areas. But swimming laps, even in comfortably chilled water, is not much different from pacing on concrete.

The Polar Bears International study, by research scientist David Shepherdson of the Oregon Zoo, found no conclusive evidence linking stereotypic behavior to stress on the animal’s part. Shepherdson also found no correlation between the behavior and the complexity of the exhibit or whether the animal was born wild or in captivity. Nikita was born at the Toledo Zoo.

The study found that numerous daily enrichment activities did reduce repetitive behavior among female bears but the effect on male bears was not statistically significant.

The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago reported success in reducing pacing by a male polar bear by leaving the door to its holding area open during zoo hours, giving the animal the choice of where it wants to be.

Wisthoff said Kansas City would experiment with allowing Nikita access to his holding area during the day.

Other zoo species, particularly big cats and elephants, also are susceptible to stereotypic behavior.

The expansion of the Kansas City Zoo in the 1990s was mindful of that with its large, naturalistic settings. Staffs here and at other zoos also try to keep animals’ lives interesting by hiding food in their exhibits and providing other diversions.

The Kansas City Zoo’s cheetahs, for example, are periodically exposed to a mechanical lure that whizzes a colored rag just above the ground for the fast-moving animals to chase.

But critics say no zoo can replace a polar bear’s natural territory, which can cover thousands of square miles.

“Polar bears are the perfect example of a species whose habitat and range cannot be even remotely simulated in captivity,” reported a study for the Humane Society of the United States called “The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity.”

Conservationists, such as Polar Bears International, argue that polar bears’ sea-ice habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate because of climate change. They say animals in zoos can be a powerful tool to educate the public about their plight and conservation in general.

Buchanan praised the Kansas City Zoo and the public here for creating an outstanding polar bear exhibit and spreading that message.

“We’re watching bears (in the wild) disappear in front of our eyes, daily, from starvation,” he said. “That’s a problem — not a bear swimming in circles.”


Bob Forer 3 years, 6 months ago

“The animal is just burning off energy,” Buchanan said Wednesday during a visit to Kansas City and the zoo. “The animal is doing fine.”

Nonsense. What else do you expect besides overtly neurotic behavior when you take a large wild animal known to roam hundreds of square miles and imprison him in a few hundred square feet. Wild animals belong in the wild, not imprisoned for human amusement.


delta77 3 years, 6 months ago

I love the zoo. But that said, the bear is much better off than those poor tigers.


beatrice 3 years, 6 months ago

Could make for a good training pool for Michael Phelps. You think he was fast before, just see how quick he can be with a bear on his heels!

Maybe the bear just needs a bottle of Coke.


maxhok 3 years, 6 months ago

Zoo prison supporters should be allowed (perhaps forced) to swim with this unfortunate magnificent animal held captive for the enjoyment of an inferior species.


Marcus DeMond 3 years, 6 months ago

autie, I don't think you realize Stephen Colbert does not really hate polar bears. His show is funny because he is mocking the conservative Republicans typically found on Fox news. He is actually making fun of Sarah Palin...


somedude20 3 years, 6 months ago

throw a fat human in the tank and watch P. Bear's routine change drastically


autie 3 years, 6 months ago

That poor bear is probably just friggin bored to tears..there ain't too much do. Now if the could put in a ice floe that has a seal or a walrus poke up and look around every now and again...that might perk up some interest on Nikita's part. At least this bear is safe from evil bear doers like Sarah Palin and Stephen Colbert. I never did figure just why those two hated bears so much.


rodentgirl16 3 years, 6 months ago

“The animal is just burning off energy,” Buchanan said Wednesday during a visit to Kansas City and the zoo. “The animal is doing fine.”

This begs the question, "Does Buchanan know which animal he is talking about? Does Buchanan know it is a polar bear?" He sounds like a robot.


domino 3 years, 6 months ago

When you put in the comment from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) it made my blood boil! The HSUS is nothing but a group of horrible people that hide behind a mask of people who pretend to care about the welfare of animals. They are nothing but liars who don't truly care about animals. Why else would they refuse to help airlift food in to cattle that were stranded in a major snowstorm and say they wouldn't do it because they were going to be killed and eaten anyway. This same group has used false statements and information to take dogs and cats out of shelters, telling those same shelters that they would try to find good homes for them, then took those same animals behind a store (grocery store, I believe) and put the animals to sleep and dumped their poor little bodies in a dumpster!!! Check out some of the information on the internet about HSUS - it is truly frightening.

People who truly care about animals, such as these beautiful polar bears, will do the best they can for these animals. Please don't drag horrible people like the HSUS into it!! And do not mistake the many wonderful Humane Societies, such as the Lawrence Humane Society, with these awful people!


KCsFinest5 3 years, 6 months ago

i feel like I just need to leave this comment, i've had a polar bear as my picture for a while.


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