Furry Attractions: Polar Bears in the Zoo

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In the western hemisphere, polar bears have lived in our midst since the Middle Ages, a result of our fascination with these charismatic carnivores. Already in 1252, Henry III of England kept a muzzled and chained polar bear, which was allowed to catch fish and frolic about in the Thames. The first unequivocally identifiable polar bears came to Europe by way of Greenlandic Norse traders and from Iceland, where sea currents still sometimes maroon them. Viking entrepreneurs distributed them to royalty throughout Europe, who kept them in ostentatious menageries or passed them on as gifts to grease diplomatic gears and careers.

With new developments shaping science and philosophy at the turn of the eighteenth century, as well as a burgeoning middle class and expeditions to the Americas, Asia, and Africa, animal collections in Europe – until then largely a privilege of nobility – opened their gates to the public. As in the medieval menageries, polar bears drew a good deal of attention. Beginning in 1693, the first King of Prussia, Frederick I, kept a polar bear and other large mammals for public amusement in a baroque-style hunting enclosure inspired by Roman arenas. These animals were too valuable and difficult to obtain to be killed but, defanged and de- clawed, were pitted against each other in faux fights.

From their very beginnings as cultural institutions, zoos have tried to balance entertainment and education. Today, many have added conservation too.

In England, entertainers had been displaying all sorts of animals at carnivals and fairs since medieval times. The traveling menagerie, which derived from the processions of Europe’s ambulatory monarchs and their entourages, first took to the roads at the turn of the eighteenth century. In a bid for respectability, the owner of one bragged he was doing “more to familiarise the minds of the masses of our people with the denizens of the forest than all the books of natural history ever printed.”

Nobody contributed more to the popularity of captive polar bears or the nature of modern zoos than Carl Hagenbeck. In 1848, Carl Hagenbeck Sr., a Hamburg fishmonger, exhibited six seals he’d received as bycatch from fishermen before selling them at a handsome profit. At age fifteen, Carl Hagenbeck Jr. took over what would become Europe’s most famous animal-trade business. He soon supplied zoos, menageries, and wealthy individuals, including the Kaiser, and in his early twenties already ranked among Europe’s top dealers in exotics. With a nose for opportunity, he branched out into the budding entertainment industry, mounting “ethnological” and large carnivore shows as well as a circus.

From their very beginnings as cultural institutions, zoos have tried to balance entertainment and education. Today, with climate change and habitat loss from development threatening the polar bear’s natural habitat, many have added conservation to their mission, with captive breeding programs and scientific research. This gallery offers a brief stroll through zoos past and present, a glimpse at how we have kept and presented the Arctic White Bear.


The Learned Pig


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Polito’s Royal Menagerie at the Exeter ’Change in London, 1812. A collection of exotic animals owned by Stephen Polito, a touring showman in Georgian England of Italian descent who had come from his own country to find fortune in London and the provinces. The artist Edwin Landseer came here to study and paint polar bears “true to life.” (Courtesy of E. K. Duncan)


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Print after Paul Meyerheim’s painting from 1885 of a Tierbude, a German traveling menagerie, a hybrid of circus and zoo. Such “shows” sometimes included taxidermy exhibits. The polar bear in the wagon on the right appears to be rather stressed by its confinement. (Wikimedia Commons)


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Polar bear house at the Bristol Zoo, 1910. Founded in 1835, the Bristol Zoo and England Zoological Society set out to facilitate “the observation of habits, form and structure of the animal kingdom, as well as affording rational amusement and recreation to the visitors of the neighbourhood.” (Courtesy of Bristol Zoo)


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The German showman and animal trader Carl Hagenbeck revolutionized wildlife displays with more natural-looking settings. In his unfenced “Northland Panorama” at the Stellingen-Hamburg Tierpark—shown here in 1910—species seemed to coexist harmoniously, but were separated by moats invisible to visitors. (Postcard in author’s collection)


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In 1933, the purpose-designed polar bear enclosure of Munich’s Hellabrunn zoo comprised a semi-circular curved swimming pool and a wide platform with rising terraces. The back wall, which had openings leading to the polar bears’ night quarters, was covered with artificial rock to replicate the Arctic environment. (Courtesy of Tierpark Hellabrunn)


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Sadly, unhealthy and dreary polar bear enclosures such as this still exist. Chile’s only polar bear “Taco” died in 2015 at the age of 18 at the National Zoo in Santiago. For years, activists protested its captivity in the capital with blockades and burning barricades. (Photo by Aldo Fontana)


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Zoo design has come a long way, as is obvious from this truly immersive experience at the Detroit Zoo. Modern zoos seek to give visitors an understanding of the bear in its home environment, while also considering the animals’ well-being. (Photo by Lon Horwedel.)


The Learned Pig


Michael Engelhard

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.