The ‘Shopping Mall Polar Bear’ Forces Us To Examine The Habitats We Build For Animals

Video and and photos are circulating of a polar bear living in a shopping mall aquarium in Guangzhou, China. They’re the type of images that spur discussion, concern, and questions. Questions about the welfare of the animal, about the purpose of the exhibit, and about the changing standards of animal habitats and exhibitry across the world’s zoos and sanctuaries. While we all know that photos and videos don’t necessarily always share the full story, and that a minute or two of observation does not provide any one viewer with a comprehensive understanding of an animal’s behavior, health, and activity level, there’s certainly enough to see in the video below to spark dialogue.

So what makes for good exhibit design?

First And Foremost, The Exhibit Is Designed With The Animal In Mind

Zoo design and exhibitry has come a long way in the thousands and thousands of years that wild animals have been kept in human care. It’s true that for years, habitats were commonly designed with primarily people in mind. Designing for people might have looked like an exhibit bent entirely on showcasing a private owner’s wealth (think bird cages that maximize ornamentation, but in doing so, unintentionally reduce usable space for the animal); it might have looked like spaces that ensured the animal was always on view of the public (lacking in foliage, rockery, distance, or accessible behind-the-scenes spaces that gave the animal the opportunity to move out of view); or it might have looked like a relatively barren space designed with an eye toward the ease and speed of cleaning and sanitation, rather than the enrichment and comfort of the animal.

Looking at the photos from Grandview Aquarium, the home of the aforementioned polar bear(s) (there are two bears onsite), it’s possible to imagine that the space was designed with all three of these outdated modes in mind before all else. Visitors are even permitted to tap on the glass in an effort to encourage the animal to reposition itself for photographs, an action that is emphatically discouraged at reputable zoos around the world.

Referring to the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums Polar Bear Care Manual, we find that due to “their large size and activity patterns, polar bears should be maintained in outdoor habitats under conditions of natural light and any indoor areas, except cubbing dens, should have skylights to provide natural lighting. Additional indoor lighting should mimic natural light patterns of the geographic area of the exhibit.” This is obviously not the case for the bears housed at Grandview, whose exhibits are entirely indoors, as the aquarium is found on the second and third floors of the mall. It looks like a nightclub in Athens circa 2001 in there.

To continue, the AZA suggests:

the landscape should be naturalistic (e.g., planted with grass, bushes, and trees for shade) and functional, including as key elements: a pool, foliage, habitat furniture (e.g., boulders, trees, logs, etc.), open/panoramic views, and substrate pits with various materials. The substrate should be “soft” rather than hard (e.g., gunnite, concrete) (Ames, 2000). An important component of the habitat design (including both exhibit and non-exhibit areas) is the ability to make changes in the terrain, vary elevations, and to modify physically (with crane and truck access) the habitat on a periodic basis (e.g., changes to trees, rocks, browse and substrate).

Today’s modern, excellent zoos are consistently working toward design that considers the needs of the animal first. What might that look like? Consider the Glacier Run exhibit at Louisville Zoo, which won the 2012 Association of Zoos and Aquariums Exhibit Design Award.

According to ZooLex — a non-profit established to encourage and promote appropriate facilities for wild animals in human care, by actively sharing and disseminating information about zoo design:

The outdoor Glacier Run exhibit provides numerous experiences for bears. They may choose to swim and dive in the 333,000 liter (88,000-gallon) pool, relax in the grassy areas with mulch and dirt dig pits, or climb down to explore either of two moats.

All the animals utilize some form of enrichment on a daily basis. A variety of enrichment items are utilized including imitation icebergs, large kong (hard rubber) toys, boomer balls, puzzle balls, cardboard boxes, jolly balls, larger enrichment items, food frozen in ice blocks, cubed ice in buckets, ice maker in Bear Alley, areas with mulch and dirt for variety of textures, cut browse for bears, and a shower in the holding pen.

The new facilities were designed to allow bears to rotate through two exhibits, seven bedrooms, bridge transfer and under-town tunnel to help further enrichment efforts. The bears are rotated through these spaces several times daily on a “consistently inconsistent” basis. An overhead transfer between the Glacier and Bear Alley exhibits is regularly accessible to the bears. They appear to appreciate the ability to look directly down on our visitors. Four sets of stairs and a simulated conveyor ramp add an aerobic element to their day. Each animal is also given time off public exhibit during the day. Doors are left open to allow animals to choose to leave public spaces.

Note that the bears have multiple choices available to them throughout the day. The AZA Polar Bear Care Manual also states that “a varied and complex environment provides the bears with choices and control over their environment, both of which are essential to animal welfare,” a description which seems to accurately reflect Louisville Zoo’s habitat. (Can the same be said for the habitat at Grandview?) Choice of activities, choice of spaces to occupy, choice of availability to the public — these are the keys.

Do some visitors perhaps get annoyed when and if bears at Glacier Run (and at other excellent habitats) aren’t on view? Probably. But even more likely is that the vast majority of the visitors who miss seeing the bears on their visit get it: that the zoo is an adventure of discovery, that the animals have agency, and that they are privileged to have the opportunity to come so close to a variety of species they would likely never encounter in the wild.

The Exhibit Is Educational And Promotes Conservation Actions If Applicable

Without being able to read or view exhibit signage, it’s impossible to say if the Grandview Aquarium is promoting the conservation of polar bears, or teaching their visitors about the world’s only marine bear. That said, shopping malls are not, historically, places that people visit in the hopes of educating themselves or changing their day-to-day actions and their habits to ensure a better world for wildlife and the protection of wild spaces. They are spaces geared toward the act of consumption, which is not, itself, inherently evil, but which can often have serious consequences for the natural world.

A shopping mall which features wild animals might well have to work double-time to change the mindset of its patrons; to ask them to not purchase single-use plastic water bottles, to shun plastic shopping bags in favor of a reusable bag they remembered to bring from home, to carefully vet the seafood choices at the mall’s restaurants for sustainability, to look for sustainable palm oil utilized in cookies and crackers, shampoos and conditioners, cleaning solvents and solutions, makeup and more.

At world-class and emerging zoos, the education and conservation messaging is an indelible part of the exhibitry. Consider, again, Glacier Run.

The very nature of the exhibit design is based on the idea of humans learning to live in balance with wildlife and adjusting to changing dynamics in the Arctic. Glacier Run provides an immersive, context-dependent, themed experience. The arctic town setting is designed to increase a sense of place, comprehension and emotional connectedness. Dramatic illustrations of melting glaciers plus the co-existence of grizzly bears, scavenging polar bears and people in town reinforce the storyline – learning to live in harmony with nature and the effects of climate change…

Polar bear alert signs, historical photos, canoes, cultural artifacts and a local radio show give visitors a sense of life on the tundra. The Community Center and Classroom feature Inuit artifacts and original artwork. Traditional window banners, themed storyboards and flat screen TVs present animal facts, rescue stories, conservation messages, compelling images of the arctic (courtesy of Polar Bear International), and explain how incremental changes in our behaviour can positively affect climate change and thus make a difference for these arctic regions and species.

The goal of exhibiting the animals is to educate, to raise awareness, to connect and inspire. Visitors are given a feel for the reality the species faces in the wild, rather than provided with an icicle-rich fairytale stage-design. They are given positive actions that they can take to help arctic animals. A quick survey of AZA zoos across the nation shows that gift shop after gift shop supplies sustainable, Fair Trade, and conservation-oriented products — from shade-grown coffee to reusable water bottles, promoting mindful shopping habits.

Melting Horizons
Via Getty Image

So What Can We Do To Help?

That depends on whether or not you believe that Americans have the right to comment on or develop opinions about the treatment of animals in other countries. After all, we still have bears as roadside attractions in this country. If you take a laissez faire approach, then this conversation is nothing more than a thought experiment.

If you’re interested in helping polar bears in general, you’re in luck! There’s a plethora of ways to become an active part of the solution in saving a charismatic and irreplaceable species. As the petition circulates to change the situation of the polar bears housed in Grandview Aquarium, it’s also important to note that polar bears in the wild are facing a crisis. Without major changes in how we consume energy, we stand to lose 2/3 of the world’s polar bears in thirty years.

Polar bears are unique in that they are a marine bear, evolved to hunt on arctic sea ice. They rely on the ice to find and take seals, for although they are excellent swimmers, they cannot match the seal in speed and maneuverability in the water. As sea ice continues to diminish, due to climate change produced by greenhouse gas emissions, the bears are forced to travel and swim longer and harder for a meal. Many are pushed to a breaking point.

Releasing every bear in human care is no solution (this would put pressure on an already fragile and fracturing habitat); rather, we need to focus on fighting climate change, supporting the conservation work of reputable zoos, and making conscientious choices every day in favor of wildlife.