The possible pregnancy of Beril, the female polar bear at the Henry Vilas zoo is no cause for celebration. See Vilas Zoo, Carrying On the Species: Is Berit bearing a cub? Vilas Zoo polar bear could have historic pregnancy.

First of all, the Henry Vilas Zoo says that it is “one of only a handful of admission-free, community-supported zoos in the country,” as if that is a good thing. What it actually means is that county residents are taxed $1.2 million to pay for it. People who never go to the zoo are forced to contribute. You pay for the zoo. It isn’t free.

Wild polar bears travel vast distances. They can swim hundreds of miles non-stop. Theirs is a world of constant change and an infinite horizon. Just watch this video of a wild polar bear swimming underwater. Glorious and free! A bear born in a zoo will live his or her 25 or so years in a profoundly smaller and unchanging space. As birds need room to fly, polar bears need room to roam. We all agree on that, wouldn’t you say?

The Vilas Zoo could help polar bears and other animals in a big way by replacing its caged animals as they die with mini-theaters featuring educational films about animals in their natural environments and teaching people what they can do to help and protect them.

Maybe people learning about wild polar bears and the problems facing them would be motivated to take definite steps to help slow global warming. Seeing a live bear trapped in a small space would add little to the educational outcome; and to the degree it might contribute even a sliver of additional knowledge, it hardly seems able to justify a lifetime in a zoo display.

Many cages have been replaced with more natural-looking enclosures, but they are still just collections of animals, menageries focused primarily on attracting visitors and making money.

The Vilas Zoo could be a  positive force for animals; it never has been, but it could. It is paid for by taxpayers, it could be a force for good if enough good people exerted enough pressure. If you live in Dane County, reach out to your Supervisor; ask him or her to take states to stop the zoo’s acquisition of new animals. Ask them to take steps to turn the zoo into a force for change.

What you can do:

  1. If you live in Dane County, reach out to your Supervisor. Ask her/him to take steps to stop the zoo’s acquisition of new animals.
  2. Never take children to the zoo. This teaches them that animals are ours to do with as we please – to cage, to breed, to keep them from their natural environment. Children who watch most animals in a zoo are not seeing the real animal. They are seeing a sad, depressed captive; stripped of her/his natural existence.
  3. Watch videos of animals in their natural environment and share them with your children.
Still reading? Want more background information? Here you go:

People began paying more attention to the loss of wildlife in the early 1960s, particularly after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The album Songs of the Humpback Whale went on sale in 1970, the same year the Environmental Protection Agency was created. The Endangered Species Act was signed at the very end of 1973.

It wasn’t until 1981 that the American Zoological Association (AZA, now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) started its Species Survival Plan system. As public sentiment changed and wild populations shrank, it became less acceptable for zoos to capture wild animals, but without a steady stream of baby animals, without the marquee species to display, zoos don’t have much to advertise. So they got into the business of raising animals.

Zoos like to say that they are preserving endangered species, but most animals in zoos aren’t from endangered species. Zoos like to say that their breeding programs lead to endangered species being reintroduced in the wild; they almost always point to the tiny few success stories like black-footed ferrets and California condors, but according to National Geographic, only 16 of the attempted 145 reintroductions over the past century have been successful, and most were the work of government agencies, not zoos.