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ENRICHMENT ACTIVITIES FOR BEARS IN ENCLOSURES
The purpose of the following document is to offer suggestions and explain the rationale for including enrichment (behavioral stimulation) activities in the daily routine of captive bears. Bears are wild animals and thus, are affected by fundamental instincts and rhythms. Those held in enclosures are subjected to unnatural situations and therefore, require additional efforts by the caretaker to maintain and enhance the bears' behavioral/physical well being. Please take note that The American Bear Association absolutely DOES NOT ENDORSE the practice of keeping bears confined as pets. As stated previously, they are wild animals and need to be respected and appreciated in those terms.
Bears are naturally "nomadic". They must travel extensively to forage on the various seasonal foods available throughout their expansive home range. It has been well documented that wild bears can roam more than 100 miles in search of food, a mate, and shelter. In addition, bears are extremely shy and intelligent animals. They are easily startled and can become potentially dangerous when threatened. These behavioral characteristics supported by strong instinctual drives and powerful strength result in animals that are highly complex. Thus, bears require our special attention and serious consideration. Maintaining bears in enclosures or as "pets" is not recommended as it can significantly affect their emotional and physical health as well as lead to risking injury to the caregiver.
Bears are typically not aggressive in nature, but instead, they are very shy and defensive. Stress and fear can transform any seemingly docile bear into a highly reactive animal that can be potentially dangerous. Unfortunately, good-intentioned people will often opt to purchase a "cute" bear cub as a pet only to confront difficulties, later, with managing the rapidly growing bruin. Due to no fault of his own, the "offending" bear is often vilified and punished when he naturally reacts to the tension or threat that looms within his artificial and restricted environment. Such unfortunate circumstances perpetuate the public's misconception of bears as aggressive and vicious predators, which often results in the needless deaths of many innocent bears.
Obviously, there are occasions when bears must be humanely contained for educational or rehabilitation reasons. (Hopefully, bears on exhibit for teaching purposes are primarily those with histories or injuries that deem them nonreleaseable). Great thought and effort must be given to ensure the confined bear's life is as stress-free and gratifying as possible. It is imperative to become educated about bears including their natural history, behavior, and needs. Acquiring good observational skills and learning the captive bear's individual personality traits can help the handler to anticipate behaviors and detect when something is wrong.
Given the circumstances of confinement, developing an effective program of enrichment activities is extremely critical and can facilitate improved general health for the bear. In places where multiple bears share quarters, "socialization" with each other will often occur when the bruins feel safe in a non-threatening environment. Creating situations where the bear can exert some control over his surroundings is vital for reducing the harmful effects of stress. Primary consideration must be given to allowing adequate space in the enclosure for the bear to "escape" from perceived danger, move about freely, and to provide opportunities to explore his environment.
Incorporating vegetation and groundcover into the design is especially important to simulate a healthy natural habitat. When considering ways to develop a motivational setting for bears in captivity keep in mind that they essentially "lead their lives by their noses". It has been cited that a bear's sense of smell is 12 times more powerful than that of a human. He uses this keen sense to find food - the "center of his universe", locate a mate, as well as to detect danger. Hiding snacks and providing tasks with associated aromatic qualities can lead to natural foraging behavior and result in a more stimulating environment. Bears are also very resourceful, curious, and intelligent. They can become quickly "bored" and thus require some ingenuity on the caregiver's part to keep them interested and intellectually challenged.
An important consideration to re-emphasize is that bears frighten very easily because they are naturally shy. Thus they must have areas that provide them security, quiet, and privacy. Startling a bear can elicit an immediate reactive response that forces a bear to defend himself against a perceived threat. Such circumstances can sometimes lead to a potentially dangerous situation.
Keep these important characteristics in mind when designing suitable habitats and devising enrichment programs for captive bears. Although not always possible, try to mimic as natural a situation as possible. Some suggested activities might include the following:
1- Instead of placing all the food in bowls and presenting it in full view of the bear, try hiding some of it around the yard, in logs, in hollows of trees, skewered on branches, in crevices, under rocks, buried, etc. Not only can this help occupy the bear's time constructively but it may facilitate natural foraging behavior. Some easy to cache and hide items include dry dog food (large chunk style & high protein), nuts in shells, dried & fresh fruits, raw sweet potatoes, carrots, dog biscuits (can be topped with peanut butter), seeded head of a sunflower, etc.
2- Submerge fresh or canned fish, peanuts, ripened fruits, various nuts & seeds, raisins etc. in a large plastic container filled with water, then freeze. May want to freeze goodies at different levels to disperse them throughout the container. Remove the entire frozen chunk from the container. Introduce this "Arctic delight" to the bear in a pool, on the ground or place it on a platform and watch him claw and chew his way through the ice to retrieve the tasty treats inside.
3- Provide a large mound of wood shavings (chips) acquired from any aromatic wood source in the enclosure for bears to roll in, climb, or rub. It's also helpful to freshen it daily with a pitchfork to redistribute the shavings into a hill. Replace the mound with fresh material every few weeks. Using aromatic cedar or pine shavings works very well. Bears seem to like climbing on top of the pile and digging holes. They also seem to be especially attracted to the more fragrant coniferous materials and some of the wood may have some bug deterrent qualities. Similarly, consider using several loads of fresh pine needles in the enclosure for making comfortable day beds and enticing exploration. Keep in mind that, sometimes, any of these materials may cause respiratory complications so watch for symptoms and remove immediately if it becomes a problem.
4- Add natural tree posts with bark still intact to the enclosure. Bears regularly designate their territories by scratching, biting, or rubbing on trees that tend to be rough textured like pine, cedar, hemlock, oak etc. Regular 4x4 wooden posts may also be effective substitutes but avoid those that have been chemically treated. The posts need to be well secured into the ground as bears can exert great amounts of force while marking. Sometimes you can elicit behaviors by placing various scents on the post. Try different animal odors such as those extracted from bear, deer, beaver, weasel, and feline urine or musk glands. Also experiment with herbal fragrances and flavorings (dry, liquid, or fresh) such as anise, butterscotch, peppermint, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, maple, pecan, almond, vanilla, apple, pine, and nutmeg.
5- Smear chunky peanut butter, fruity jams or honey along the side of trees and branches or on any platform to enhance opportunities for exploration, climbing, and stretching activities.
6- Bears love to lounge and play in water, especially on hot days. It helps them to stay cool and avoid pesky bugs. Hang vines or branches overhead for them to reach for and investigate. Lay some smooth rocks on bottom of pool and add some "floatables" (such as dried gourds, bobbing fruits etc) to stimulate their curiosity. Providing deeper water may sometimes facilitate swimming and more exercise.
7- Bears naturally like to climb and sit with high vantagepoints to rest or look out for potential danger. Include trees with sturdy limbs and boulders in the enclosure for bears to safely climb. If you don't have a tree or boulder available, try fabricating a raised platform from strong, rough-textured logs (preferably with bark intact for easier gripping) and camouflage it with natural foliage. Make sure the bears have a clear way to climb up onto the platform. They often prefer "decks" located near protective cover such as trees or bushes as opposed to placed out in the open since vegetative screens give them a sense of security. You can encourage them to climb by placing some treats on top of the platform. If a bear is too heavy, weak, or old to climb then provide a "helper" by placing some wide, roughly textured logs or planks which are at an easy incline for them to gain ready access to the "deck". Always remember to locate trees and platforms far enough away from the perimeter fences.
8- Place fresh conifers (cedar, hemlock, pine, etc) with "greens" intact near scratching post, sawdust pile, pool, or platform. Bears seem to be attracted to the smell and often like to play or rub their heads on the aromatic boughs. You may want to drill some holes, higher up on scratching posts, and insert evergreen branches so bears have to stretch for them. They may even bite on them during marking rituals.
9- Bears are very
curious and like to check out anything "new" in
10- Another idea is to suspend some items from trees such as gourds, pinecones covered with peanut butter, honey and seeds, and swinging tree limbs (ex. pine) with leaves intact. Some unnatural items, which can be equally effective, might include durable canvas or mesh bags filled with edible or fragrant goodies, large sturdy balls and tires hanging from overhead poles or trees. You may want to place these out of public view if you are concerned with maintaining a "natural look".
11- Add edible plants to the enclosure for the bear to forage. Some favorites include fruit-bearing vines (ex. grapes, melons, blackberries), fruit trees (plum, cherry, and apple), nut bushes/trees (oak, hazelnut, walnut etc.) jewelweed, dandelions, oats, tender young grasses, and ESPECIALLY CLOVER!!
12- Place a honeycomb in a tree or log hollow so the bear can retrieve the cherished rewards of larvae and honey. Contact a beekeeper after he has finished harvesting from the hives for any of his "left-overs".
13- Bears need places to hide so provide them "mock" caves or hollows to conceal themselves when they do not feel like being "sociable", being on exhibit or when they feel threatened. Providing private places is extremely important to reduce stress!
Some suggested treats/foods to consider in various activities include the following:
*Keep in mind that nuts tend to mold or mildew easily so watch for this and do not feed to the animal
CAUTION: Remember that chocolate and moldy nuts, especially peanuts, can be LETHAL to bears and other animals. Exclude chocolate and all spoiled foods including those that contain mold or mildew. Also, keep sweets to a minimum. Avoid spicy and highly seasoned foods.
Like humans, each bear may have a different personality, reaction to stimuli, and preference in food so experiment with various treats and activities. Providing adequate space, a wide variety of foods, opportunities for privacy/security, and environmental stimulation are the keys to a healthier and "better-adjusted" bear in confinement. Use compassion, respect, take responsibility, and be creative.
We hope that you find the suggested enrichment activities helpful. The American Bear Association has offered this information to ease the discomfort and boredom of bears already held in confinement. This document will provide guidance to owners who are determined to maintain bears in captivity as pets, in spite of the potential for serious consequences.
We sincerely hope to discourage those individuals who are contemplating purchasing a bear as a pet in the future. Please consider that bears in captivity can live 30 years or more thus requiring a long-term commitment of time, dedication, and expense from the owner. We need to reiterate the warning that healthy wild animals should never be raised as pets. Depriving these creatures of their freedom and natural drives (whether born into captivity or in the wild) can result in grave consequences for both the animals and their caregivers. We sincerely appreciate your giving this serious situation thoughtful consideration. Thank you.
For more information,
please contact The American Bear Association, PO Box 77, Orr, MN 55771
or check our website at www.americanbear.org
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