More than the Bear Essentials
By Paul Kail



Although brown bears are native to the Czech Republic, there are about thirty times more animals living in captivity than in their natural environment. Most of these are kept in conditions which have hardly changed in hundreds of years.

 The numbers involved are not huge, but the suffering is. There are 47 bears living in zoos and a further 10 living in castle moats such as the ones at Cesky Krumlov and Konopiste. In addition there are about three Czech circuses which keep bears. Two lost souls are believed to live freely in the woods near the Slovak border.

Apart from the lucky two who are free, these animals spend their lives in wretched conditions. They have nothing to give them mental stimulation, and almost no space. Circus bears are treated particularly cruelly: the animals are crammed into tiny cages 4-6 sqm in size.

Much of this neglect stems from the socialist period when there was much less contact with the rest of the world than there is today. The enclosures are typically several decades old and so is the mentality that goes with them. This legacy will take time to change and it will be a while before there is enough money for the large spaces which the animals need.

 In the meantime, an organization based in Prague called Bratr Medved, (Brother Bear) has been trying to educate people to take the needs of their charges more seriously. It is run by activist Roman Rogner using funding from the animal welfare group Tier-hilfswerk Austria. Rogner has catalogued all the captive bears in the Czech Republic in order to pinpoint areas of most concern. For each bear, he has documented the space the animal has and what facilities are available, if any. The report makes depressing reading.

Two of the worst zoos are Hodonín Zoo in South Moravia and Ohrada Zoo in South Bo-hemia. At Hodonín Zoo two bears live in a total area of just 40 sqm constructed entirely out of concrete: their inside area is less than a fifth of this size. The bears have no toys whatsoever, and display stereotyped movements showing that they are under considerable stress. The manager of the zoo refused to respond to any of the letters which Rogner sent him.

Another disaster area is the castle moat at Konopiste. This was the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo led to the First World War. While Ferdinand lived in the castle itself, two Malayan sun bears called Kazamír and Mása live in the moat. Bears were traditionally kept in castle moats to protect the residents against attack, but today they are used to attract tourists. Unfortunately, not all the tourists treat them with respect. The animals have little privacy and some of the tourists throw things at them. One sadist even hit them with a cabbage head filled with pins.

Lack of money is often cited as the reason why nothing has been done to improve the bears’ living conditions. According to Marie Krejcová, the custodian of the castle, the bears’ enclosure was neglected because the administration had “other priorities” and “limited funds”.

But some changes make a big difference yet cost very little to implement.

The Universities’ Federation for Animal Welfare has funded two major research projects about bears. One of these focused on polar bears; however, because they are so similar to brown bears this research is relevant to them as well. Roman Rogner, director of Bratr Medved, has been using this research to find ways to improve the lives of Czech bears in captivity.

The first stage in improving the bears’ conditions was to demonstrate that there was a problem. Brown bears are quite easy to keep alive in captivity, and it was not apparent to some of the zoo directors that the bears were unhappy. Rogner pointed to research showing that when animals in captivity are under stress they tend to make stereotypic movements — for example, they may pace backwards and forwards again and again.

Based on research in the UK and America, Rogner showed that bears have the following basic requirements:

First of all, they need at least 5,000 sqm of outside space which should be covered in natural materials such as sand and soil which they can use to make day beds and to forage. Research in the UK showed that, when they had a choice, polar bears spent 78% of their time in soft areas of their enclosure and only 22% in areas covered by concrete. As well as decent outdoor space they need an indoor enclosure which is dry, free from draughts and easy to clean.

Second, because bears are not sociable animals they need to be able to hide from other bears in the same enclosure — even a visual barrier which keeps the other bears out of sight helps to reduce stress. If possible female bears with cubs should have access to an area which only they can enter.

Third, bears need mental stimulation. They need frames or trees to climb and new objects to play with, such as barrels, balls or tires. Work with polar bears has shown that they are capable of using objects intelligently, in much the same way as young primates. They use objects to create games such as tug-of-war or pretend to stalk them as if they were prey.

Fourth, they need to be able to forage for food. Part of their food ration should be hidden and distributed around their enclosure. For example, honey, mustard or tomato sauce can be poured into holes drilled into logs and these logs can be hung from chains. Other foods such as peanut butter, raisins and sunflower seeds can be hidden in small holes.

Almost all of these requirements are ignored in Czech zoos. The enclosures are built of concrete, not natural materials; the bears’ indoor spaces are dirty, cold and draughty; they are often housed in pairs, even though this is known to lead to aggression; they have nothing to play with and no opportunity to forage for food. Their rations are typically given at one time, so that the only interesting period in the animals’ day lasts about five minutes.

The bears stay alive, but all of their natural instincts are frustrated. Because of the stress they pace up and down their cages — sometimes spending as much as a third of their waking lives going through the same movements again and again. One poor bear who had been kept in a tiny enclosure in a circus wagon carried on making the same stereotypic movements several months after he was transferred to much larger accommodation in a zoo.

However, Rogner’s program of gentle persuasion and education is gradually beginning to pay off. Partly due to pressure from Bratr Medved, Zlín-Lesná Zoo is planning an expansion which will give the bears larger enclosures situated in a forest. Hodonín Zoo, which was highlighted by his report as having one of the worst bear enclosures in the country, is finally being upgraded. The space has been expanded and is now divided into two parts so the bears can be separated if necessary. The animals have also been provided with some rocks and tires to play with. Ohrada Zoo is also in the process of building a much better enclosure for their bears which includes rocks for climbing, an area for foraging and a pool.

At Konopiste and the other castles it will be much harder to increase the sizes of the enclosures because they are part of protected monuments. Nevertheless, with the help of money from Tierhilfswerk, Austria the bear enclosure will be expanded and the animals will be provided with tree trunks to climb on, toys, a place to swim and a nesting area. The tree trunks will have holes drilled in them to provide hiding places for food.

The Bratr Medved project demonstrates that the first step in improving the suffering of non-human animals in captivity is to understand their needs. A small amount of money used intelligently can make a very big difference.

Dr. Paul Kail graduated from Oxford University in 1982 and completed his PhD at Cambridge University in 1989. He has written two books, one of which has been translated into German. He lives in Prague and writes about animal cognition.  

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