Grizzly psychosis at the zoo: There’s no place like home

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

Circling Bear, left (emerging from shadow); Pacing Bear, right

“The animals in this zoo walk in circles.”

The boy, about eight years old, made this observation as he stood inches from a compulsively-circling grizzly, a thick wall of plexiglass between bear and child. He repeated it–now more question than statement–but neither parent responded. “The bear’s gone crazy from captivity,” I ventured in his direction. His mom agreed. “Yes, it’s so sad,” she said. “I feel sorry for them.” Meanwhile, the bear circled and circled while her sister paced a linear route back and forth, back and forth. Meanwhile, a lump was forming in my throat.

Here’s why I went to the zoo: I wanted to see for myself what happens to Montana grizzlies when robbed of their lives in the wild. Flashback to 2005. A small story appeared in our local western Montana newspaper about a grizzly sow–a so-called “problem bear” who broke into garbage bins then graduated to sheds. Captured and relocated several times, the magnetic pull of what she’d learned from humans–that we harbor tasty, easily-accessible meals–was too great. “The fact that she started breaking into structures kind of sealed her fate,” said the bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the state management agency.

BFC photo-click image

Sadly, there’s no Attractive Nuisance Doctrine that protects bears from negligent landowners or–more accurately–that obligates humans to protect and accommodate their wild neighbors. Animals–especially when inconvenient and particularly when deemed a threat–are ultimately disposable, even those protected by the Endangered Species Act, as grizzlies are. Even those like Mama Griz, who found trouble just beyond the edge of refuge–in this case, outside of Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness. Just ask Yellowstone’s wild bison about the Montana reception they get when they step outside of their designated space…equal opportunity oppression across species.

So Mama Griz was killed in her prime by FWP for her human-induced habituation (let’s be clear about that–she was killed by the state, not euthanized) and her two female cubs–their brief, wild lives now history–were slated for a “bear facility” at a zoo in Indiana. And lo and behold, I knew this zoo as a historic fixture in my hometown for over 85 years. A tiny, lakeside attraction (15 acres in its entirety), it began in 1925 as one man’s menagerie and grew to feature Works Progress Administration architecture that loomed large and cavernous in my 1950s childhood. In those dark days, little was known of animals’ inner lives, and visitors gawked and laughed at the primates who “entertained” us by screaming while compulsively–violently–hurling their bodies from wall to wall in their small, sterile, iron-barred cages, automatons of psychosis.

I e-mailed the bear management specialist (he was not without compassion for the cubs) and told him what I knew. “There IS no bear facility. It’s a cement-and-iron-barred cage.” And so it was in 2005 when the cubs arrived. In 2006 the zoo began construction of a North American Carnivore Exhibit which now houses the bears on one side and mountain lions on the other, the display areas separated by a wall and a waterfall. According to the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, the average home range throughout North America for an adult female grizzly bear is about 70 square miles, something no zoo can provide. These bears have something less than the space of a basketball court–a cement and plexiglass habitat 1600 miles from home. The result? Zoochotic behavior:

Despite a zoo’s best efforts, its animals often are deprived of privacy, confined to inadequate spaces and unable to engage in natural hunting and mating activities. Forced to live in artificial constructs, many animals succumb to what some people refer to as zoochosis, the display of obsessive, repetitive behaviors.  ~Animal Planet: Zoo Cons

In Bristol Zoo in the UK, two polar bears called Nina and Misha have been confined in a tiny concrete enclosure for 28 years. They are described as being in a psychotic state. Zoocheck, an organisation founded by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (Born Free) discovered that more than 60% of polar bears in British zoos are mentally deranged and cubs born in zoos are twice as likely to die as those in the wild.
~Animal Liberation Queensland

Preventing natural behaviour patterns in animals can give rise to stress and frustration and impair the development of brain regions that are involved in behavioural sequencing, thereby reducing the animal’s ability to behave flexibly and appropriately. ~Captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores

The video we shot shows Circling Bear making three complete revolutions in 15 seconds (the camera stopped, but the bear kept going). Elsewhere, the once-cavernous monkey house now seemed small–you know how adulthood has a way of shrinking long-remembered places. “Gone are the bars and tile cages and they are being replaced with glass fronted more realistic exhibits” reads the zoo’s website about a renovation started in 2008. (Monkeys were still behind bars in 2008!) A zebra stood listlessly on barren soil. A kangaroo desperately traversed the short section of fence between his cage and the neighboring wallaby’s cage, log sections strategically placed along his futile path. Parrots clung to chain link cages; tigers–three of them in an enclosure perhaps 50 feet by 30 feet–paced the perimeter.

It would be easy to go all maudlin at this point, to describe how I watched the animals watching me, how I desperately wanted to convey to them, “I’m not here to gawk, not here to exploit your misery for my own entertainment,” hoping they could feel the vibes of my tearful distress. It would be easy, because that is truthfully the way it played out.

It would be easy to lay blame at the doorstep of a 15-acre zoo that houses over 200 animals from mega-fauna like grizzlies and tigers to primates to parakeets; a zoo whose animals, despite their “enrichment,” circle and pace and seem listless or crazy. Ultimately, it would be easy to condemn Montana FWP for sentencing bear cubs to the living death of zoo incarceration, a stir-crazy future of years (maybe decades) stretching out before them, devoid of everything that makes a grizzly bear a grizzly: the vast, open spaces of Big Sky Country with its sun and huckleberries, its meadows and mountains; the chase for prey, snug winter dens, and families of their own; the freedom to know both ease and hardship, life and death–in the wild.

But at the root, we are all to blame, because speciesism is to blame, and we humans alone must own that. No one zoo is culpable when our species, based on our privilege as humans, has constructed a world where it’s acceptable–normal, even–to incarcerate or enslave other, “lower” animals for our amusement. Speciesism might be the last great social justice battle we’ve yet to fight, but the depressing truth is this: animal oppression and exploitation are so thoroughly integrated into the status quo, so tightly woven into the very fabric of everyday life, that the battle is yet to even be recognized by most. And when it is, it’s often met with sneering belittlement: Speciesism–you’re kidding, right? Why don’t you put your energy into something that matters, like working for hungry people?

Speciesism is reinforced by religion, by government, by capitalism (oh, especially by capitalism!), by parents and teachers. Human desires trump animal needs: we have every right to keep chickens (and bird feeders, fruit trees, dog food on the back porch, etc.) in bear country. Counties approve subdivisions in wildlife habitat and travel corridors; residents then complain about intrusive animals and call for their removal. (Why, they’re eating my landscaping! They’re a threat to my children! I can’t even let my dog out unattended!) And the beat goes on and on and on.

The large-brained species has come up with but two solutions for the orphaned cubs of grizzly moms whose luck has run out: Living death in zoos–lives measured in circles turned and pounds of omnivore chow consumed, or death–the real, final thing. Just two. Anything else would require something more of us.

5 Responses

  1. Had I been by your side in your hometown zoo, Kathleen, there would have been two lumps in two throats, and a double dose of maudlin.

    If only I could understand how it is that every *normal* human being on this planet refuses to see what you see.

    Why is it that we are not all willing to put ourselves in the place of our nonhuman brethren and try to feel as they feel?

    How could we be so grossly mistaught — brainwashed to believe that we are “more equal” than our fellow-beings the animals? More deserving of dignity and respect, of autonomy and independence, of having space to roam and a home to call our own, of food and friends and families and freedom, of security and safety — of life itself?

    What we don’t realize, I think, is that, in obeying the despotic rules of speciesism, which demands that we consider ourselves superior to and supreme over animals, we imprison ourselves — lock up our hearts in a dark dungeon and throw away the key.

    If only we understood that as soon as we rise above our zoo-and-circus-and marine-park mentality, shuck off our laboratory-rat shackles, rip to shreds our human=owner-and-animal=property laws and labels, overcome our addiction to fat and our flirtation with fur and feathers, substitute pleather for leather, quit commodifying and consuming anyone who happens to be other than human — that’s when we remove our own manacles.

    Here’s a simpler way to put it: When we stop crucifying our creature kin, we resurrect ourselves from the dead.

  2. At 5 years-old my son announced to me as we stood watching a tiger pacing back and forth in his small glass enclosure at the S.F. Zoo, “I want to go mama, I don’t like it here, the animals look sad.” I happily never took him back.

    Animals are not for our entertainment. No matter how spectacular a zoo may look it’s a prison for every captive animal. Zoos are a business operating for profit. It’s not about the animals, it’s about greed and disconnect. Before I die I hope to see the end of all zoos, wildlife parks, and marine mammal parks.

  3. As a Western native, I’ve been saying it for years — stop building subdivisons and trophy homes in wildlife habitat. They are the bane of the West. If you want to move here from California or the Midwest, at least have the good graces to buy a house in town and live modestly, instead of expecting everything to be altered to your desires.

    And even beyond that, the grizzly population of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem reached critical mass years ago. Dominant bears have staked their claim in the prime interior habitat, and are thus pushing other bears out to the fringes.

    It’s just a matter of time before one shows up downtown somewhere, as black bears and cougars already do once in a while.

  4. […] into captivity to live unnatural, diminished lives are tragic cases in their own right. Witness a bear turning endless tight circles in her cement cell (instead of ranging across 100 square wilderness miles) and tell me this […]

  5. […] faux natural habitats and “enrichment”–a favorite zoo buzzword. I’ve already written about the tiny, 15-acre zoo in my hometown that houses grizzlies, mountain lions, numerous tigers, and […]

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