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15 March 2017

These Photographs of Polar Bears in Captivity Are Powerful and Disturbing

img Sheng Wen Lo Format Festival
In the wild, polar bears’ lives are anything but confined. They migrate for miles, and male bears in particular are almost always moving from place to place in solitude. For these reasons and more, they are more ill-suited for captivity than most animals, and their natural habitat is far more difficult to replicate than that of other wildlife.

When I was 16, I saw a polar bear in the flesh for the first and only time, at the now ill-reputed Sea World in Orlando. It felt strange and wrong, unsurprisingly, and in the past few years 3 of Sea World’s polar bears have died from medical complications, including the one I saw. Now there are none left there. In the wild, polar bears have a lifespan of 25-30 years, but none of the 3 Sea World bears made it past their late teens.

In a new series of images, photographer Sheng Wen Lo has captured the harrowing weirdness of polar bear captivity, travelling to zoos and enclosures in North America, Europe and China. The series is entitled The White Bear, and it’s hard not to get emotional as you scroll through the images.

The idea of the series is to highlight the fact that, as stated above, some animals simply are not suited to captivity. The photos were cross compared with expert testimony about the behaviour of captive bears, and demonstrate a whole range of different moods and interactions. Some are endearing, others are captivating, while others still are just upsetting.

Lo didn’t necessarily intend the series to be a commentary on the mistreatment of animals by humans, but merely our relationship with animals, and what happens when our environments converge. He chose polar bears because their environment is particularly difficult to replicate, so many zoos simply paint Arctic tundra onto the walls of the enclosure, which made Lo wonder whose benefit that was really for – the bears or the people who come to see them.

Lo spent so long with the bears he shot that he saw a broad spectrum of behaviour, as well as getting a sense of the myriad of different methods zoos use to make the animals feel at home. The methods ranged from conventional to inefficient to outright baffling.

img Sheng Wen Lo
Some of the images do appear to show the bears existing in their adopted environment comfortably, but the fact remains that no facility, anywhere in the world, can ever hope to give a captive polar bear the kind of life it has evolved to cope with. Some zoos have introduced breeding programs to help bolster the wild bear population, while others use them as totems to raise awareness about climate change.

For decades, having a polar bear in your zoo was a pretty hefty controversy magnet, but this new surge of climate change awareness has led to an increase in captive bear breeding. Some have argued that the climate change argument is merely a smokescreen to justify keeping polar bears, as they’ve been known to draw big crowds.

In any case, Lo’s series sheds a fascinating light on how they respond to captive life. It also ruthlessly demonstrates the disparity in quality of care between zoos in different parts of the world. View the full series here.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.