Striving for Animal Excellence: Polar Bears

Posted February 26, 2018 by David Orban

Modern zoos and aquariums have always sought to improve the lives of animals in their care. Over time, more resources have been put towards veterinary and nutritional care, habitats have been built more complex, and animal care staff incorporate more behavior training (asking and rewarding animals for performing behaviors that benefit their care), enrichment (novel experiences that provide choices to animals and benefit their physical and psychological well-being), and keeper-animal relationship building into daily practice. Science overlaps into each of these areas and is becoming more prominent throughout the modern zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is host to the world-renowned Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), which is working to conserve populations of endangered species.  In addition, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has implemented a new initiative which aims to incorporate more scientific elements into the daily care of our individual animals residing at the Zoo.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) defines animal welfare as an “animal’s collective physical, emotional, and mental state over a period of time and [to which] can be measured on a continuum from good to poor.” Here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (an AZA-accredited zoo), we’re striving for our animals to constantly be experiencing the “good” end of the animal welfare continuum (and beyond!), which over time evolved into a new concept and core initiative: Animal Excellence.

To the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Animal Excellence means a multitude of coinciding concepts. It means 1) that all animals entrusted in our care experience physical and nutritional wellness, 2) have environments that promote species-specific behavior and meet their social needs, 3) have the ability to cope with novel experiences, 4) develop positive relationships with care staff, and 5) have opportunity for meaningful choice and control. In striving for Animal Excellence, we’re beginning to take a more strategic and evidence-based approach towards continuously improving the experiences of the animals we care for. This strategy may involve behavior and welfare research, measurement of environmental variables, incorporation of scientific literature and best practices into future habitat design, and partnering with local universities and animal care experts.

One great example of our journey towards Animal Excellence is the work we’ve done to better understand and improve the experiences of our two polar bears, Little One and Anana.

When female polar bear, Anana, came to Cincinnati just over a year ago, visitors may have noticed that she was quite weary of her new male roommate, Little One. Despite her loving interactions with care staff, Anana consistently kept a far distance from Little One and began to demonstrate some anxious behaviors. That’s when animal care and science staff came together to come up with a comprehensive plan to monitor the polar bears and make changes to promote Anana’s comfort. Since last spring:

  • Months of behavioral and space usage research have taken place to better understand more about the bears’ activity patterns throughout the day, how they interact with one another, and how they utilize the two habitats and their dens.
  • Care staff have given the polar bears 24-hour access to more of their behind-the-scenes dens, thus giving the bears more control over where they choose to be.
  • New enrichment and habitat opportunities have been tested and evaluated, including provision of giant ice piles and live fish, access to more vegetation and substrates, and new large enrichment items to manipulate and play with.
  • Plans for an additional water chiller have been developed (we want the water even colder!).
  • Care staff have made great strides in their relationship building and behavior training plans, including training Anana to voluntarily participate in body part presentations and abdominal ultrasounds.

After months of behavior observations, habitat and management modifications, and more complex enrichment opportunities – not to mention the work Dr. Erin Curry of CREW has done on researching polar bear reproduction – we’ve started to see Anana really settle into her new home. A few weeks ago, we observed another milestone – Anana and Little One playing together! (Finally!)

Together, our care staff have over 78 years of combined experience caring for polar bears, and yet they’re still overjoyed with moments like this. Head keeper for the polar bears Lisa Vollmer had this to say, “I’ve been a part of the Cincinnati Zoo for over 30 years and have worked with 12 polar bears here. I am as awestruck with them today as I was then, and to see Little One and Anana getting along so well now after their rough start together makes all the hard work and sleepless nights worth it.”

We’re very excited about this development and look forward to continuing our progress towards Animal Excellence for our polar bears and other animal residents at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Join the Zoo in celebrating and conserving wildlife during International Polar Bear Day on Feb. 27, presented by Cold Jet. International Polar Bear Day invites visitors to learn more about these amazing animals through interactive discovering stations and special animal encounters. Next, help us make it a global day of action for the bears by taking part in our Thermostat Challenge at home, work, or school. Just lower your thermostat on February 27th to reduce your carbon emissions and help polar bears.