Bears Behind Bars: PETA Asks Feds to Help

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3 min read

PETA has submitted a 64-page petition, which includes case studies, photographs, and expert statements, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asking the agency to create and apply specific regulations for bears held captive in appalling conditions by exhibitors, dealers, and research facilities. By allowing bears to be kept in squalid cages and concrete pits and denied everything that is natural and important to them, the USDA is clearly failing to ensure anything close to humane treatment of captive bears, in violation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

Changing the Regulations to Reflect Reality

Last month, PETA successfully used legal action to rescue a bear named Ben, who was kept for six long years at Jambbas Ranch in a cramped cage with a concrete floor. Ben was fed dry dog food once a day and spent most of his waking hours pacing the few square feet allotted to him. Despite Ben’s obvious suffering and multiple complaints from PETA and others, USDA inspectors failed to cite Jambbas for violations related to Ben. In state court, however, a judge ruled that the conditions in which he was being kept constituted cruelty to animals, proving that the federal AWA isn’t preventing cruelty to captive bears.

While Ben’s story has a happy ending, hundreds of other bears will continue to languish in squalid conditions unless the USDA takes action. Roadside zoos like Jambbas and the Cherokee Bear Zoo account for the majority of USDA licensees with captive bears. These shabby facilities keep bears in tiny barren cages or concrete pits with woefully inadequate space, lack of physical or mental stimulation, and inappropriate diets and in conditions that deny the bears any opportunity to engage in natural behavior, such as hibernating and foraging. Because their needs aren’t being met, many bears in roadside zoos spend most of their time pacing, cage-biting, and head-butting, which experts agree are signs of distress.

Bears Need Their Space—and Much More

Bears have a natural life span of up to three decades, and some species can have a home range of thousands of miles. According to the International Zoo Yearbook, “[I]t is recognized that bears are extremely difficult and challenging creatures to manage in the captive environment”—just as challenging, according to studies, as primates. For example, in a study of 33 carnivorous species, bears showed the most evidence of stress and psychological dysfunction in captivity. An Oxford University study ultimately concluded that “the keeping of naturally wide-ranging carnivores should be either fundamentally improved or phased out.” But the requirements for bears’ care currently fall under the AWA’s minimum regulations for a wide variety of unspecified species, and the USDA is failing to use these generic regulations to protect bears.

In addition to a specific prohibition on keeping bears in abysmal concrete pit–style enclosures, PETA has proposed regulations that would require that bears be furnished with naturalistic habitats, dens for nesting and hibernation, pools for bathing, enough room to forage and explore, enrichment, and other elements that would improve bears’ mental and physical well-being.

What You Can Do

Speak up for bears in captivity! Please join PETA in urging the USDA to formulate bear-specific standards to be added to the AWA.

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