Saddest Bear Is So Bored After Spending 25 Years In Same Tiny Cage
“He’s in a state that we commonly call ‘learned helplessness.’ There’s nothing for him to do.”
The black bear looked like he had given up on life. He lay on the ground of his enclosure, listless and unmoving.
This is what Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck, a Canadian animal welfare organization, observed when she stood in front of the bear enclosure at the Spruce Haven Nature Park, a controversial roadside zoo in Ontario, Canada.
“He was completely lethargic,” Woodyer told The Dodo. “He’s in a state that we commonly call ‘learned helplessness.’ There’s nothing for him to do.”
The black bear, named Ben, has been living at Spruce Haven Nature Park for the last 25 years — or possibly longer — inside the same small enclosure, according to Woodyer. But Ben wasn’t born in captivity.
“He was an orphaned cub in the province of Ontario,” Woodyer said. “The Ontario Ministry [of Natural Resources and Forestry] found this orphaned cub and brought it over to them, and he’s been in that situation [at the zoo] ever since.”
On Spruce Park’s website, the facility claims to have started in the “1980s as a rescue facility for injured or abandoned domestic animals and birds,” and says that it’s continued to provide sanctuary for injured and abandoned wildlife. Yet Woodyer doesn’t buy this explanation.
“The owners claim to be ‘rescuing animals,’ but you can’t imagine worse circumstances that the animals could be living in, so it’s certainly no rescue,” Woodyer said. “Ben’s enclosure, in particular, is probably the worst bear enclosure in North America. We’ve looked at all kinds of facilities in the United States as well, even including the bear pits that exist, and this facility for Ben is absolutely the worst.”
For one, Ben’s enclosure is incredibly small, only measuring to about 25 feet by 25 feet, which doesn’t give him enough space to move around and exercise, according to Woodyer. Another problem is the lack of enrichment inside his enclosure.
“His sleeping box is all chewed up and half destroyed, and he’s got a tire that just hangs there, but I’ve never once heard or seen him interact with the tire,” Woodyer said. “There’s really nothing for that animal to do. The only entertainment at all would be when he gets fed.”
Probably as a result of his unstimulating enclosure, Ben displays several stereotypic behaviors — patterns animals develop to cope with psychological distress — like pacing and lying unnaturally still.
“When he was younger, he was probably frustrated,” Woodyer said. “But after that, he probably gave up. That’s when they get into that lethargic, ‘learned helplessness’ state because even their frustration is gone. They just lay there.”
“He’s just laying there, waiting to die,” Woodyer added. “There’s nothing good that can come for him there.”
Woodyer also doesn’t believe that Ben has regular access to clean, fresh water.
“There’s an old dilapidated bathtub buried in the ground with dirty, stagnant water sitting in it,” Woodyer said. “So it was certainly not what I would call potable water. And on the day that we were there, there was no other water source there.”
“We’re also aware that this enclosure floods in the spring when the snow melts,” Woodyer added. “So there’s a lot of standing water in Ben’s enclosure at certain times of year as well.”
Ben isn’t the only animal suffering at Spruce Haven Nature Park, according to Woodyer.
“All of the carnivores, in particular, are in bad circumstances,” Woodyer said. “They have small enclosures, and there’s nothing for them to do. Even potable water is questionable on many days that we’ve been there. There’s rotting food left in the enclosures, probably because they don’t even have the proper means to even clean these enclosures.”
Like Ben, the other carnivores, who include lions, coyotes, cougars and wolves, spend a lot of time pacing inside their enclosures. Other times, the animals exhibit aggressive behavior.
“The cougar is very agitated and clearly frustrated,” Woodyer said. “When you walk by the cage, she lunges at the cage and snarls and puts on a big show.”
Woodyer believes that the zoo also poses a public health risk.
“The wolves are behind deer fencing — it’s called deer fencing for a reason, and it’s only about 6 feet high,” Woodyer said. “So if those wolves were sufficiently motivated, they’d be over that quick enough. The caging for the lions is similarly dangerous.”
Spruce Haven Nature Park could not be immediately reached for comment.
The best thing for these animals would be to move them to an accredited sanctuary, Woodyer said, which she hopes will happen as soon as possible if enough public pressure is placed on the zoo.
“At a minimum, the carnivores have to go,” Woodyer said. “They are just in the most deplorable conditions. And it poses a significant risk to the public as well.”