National Geographic Society Newsroom

The Art and Science of Captive Animal Enrichment: Part 1 – Bears

In celebration of Bear Awareness Week (May 15th – May 21st), Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul discusses enriching the lives of bears in captivity and particularly those at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is home to the largest bear exhibit in the United States.  Zoo Keepers can relate to that puzzled expression...

In celebration of Bear Awareness Week (May 15th – May 21st), Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul discusses enriching the lives of bears in captivity and particularly those at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is home to the largest bear exhibit in the United States. 

Captive Grizzly, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo By Steve Mendive)

Zoo Keepers can relate to that puzzled expression on the face of inquisitive visitors standing in front of an exhibit. Some patrons are bemused by the unknown while others are alarmed.  “What is that? What are the animals doing?”  

Explaining the concept of animal enrichment to zoogoers can at times be challenging. Since the beginning of my tenure as a zoo animal keeper the philosophy surrounding enrichment has evolved. Some might say that what was once a form of art has emerged into more or less a science.   In fact, peer-reviewed journals such as Zoo Biology and International Zoo Yearbook publish rigorous scientific studies examining the effects of enrichment on captive wildlife welfare. With that said, enrichment programs are often designed and managed by animal keepers, not all of whom rely on research to create efficacious programs. Hence, the intuition and pragmatic thinking of a skilled zoo veteran may be just as valuable to enrichment programming. Some facilities even employ a full-time enrichment coordinator to manage and monitor enrichment programs.

Enrichment may be defined as a suite of activities that meets the physiological and psychological needs of one’s animal charges.  Competent enrichment managers must have a keen understanding of the behavioral ecology and sociobiology of their animals in order to elicit species-specific and appropriate natural behaviors from their charges.  They must also have comprehensive knowledge of captive animal behavior along with an awareness of saftey issues regarding the use of enrichment devices.

Often categorized as either environmental or training, enrichment is stimuli keepers provide for their animals through feeding and conditioning regimes or through exhibit furniture.  Some enrichment devices are substitutes for the features in nature that are difficult to recreate, but are vital aspects of a species natural surroundings.  Take for instance, the plastic ice floes manufactured for polar bear exhibits that encourage the animals to manipulate a hard, flat and floating substrate in their enclosure. The plastic floatation devices are replicas of sea ice. And consider the woven fire hose hammocks which are commonly used for bear species, particularly those that make elevated day beds high up in trees such as the Andean bear.

Captive Grizzly Bear, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo By Steve Mendive)

Keeping ursids in captivity is not new. Syrian brown bears were managed in captive environments 4,000 years ago,  and informal enrichment was offered to captive bears as early as the 13th century. Despite the long history of captive bear management, we are only now begining to realize the need to provide captive bears with the physical and mental stimuli–the kind of enrichment that is commensurate with the strength and great intelligence of these animals. In fact, Law and Reid (2010) suggest that enrichment requirements for bears should be as challenging and complex as those for primates, for which enrichment is now mandatory.  They also assert that healthy and adequate enrichment can not substitute for a small and poorly designed enclosure.

A need for much more spacious exhibits and complex environmental enrichment for captive bears is warranted. At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center we manage our seven bears (5 brown and two black) in 36 acres of a semi-natural exhibit space comprised of brushland and conifers and over two acres of water. As spacious and natural as the the 18 acre adult brown bear habitat is, we still, on rare occasions, see stereotypic behaviorin our bears. 

Grizzly Cubs at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo By Vanessa Gibson)


To combat these aberrant, purposeless behaviors (e.g., head rolling and pacing), we have complemented our food enrichment program with behavioral training.  As for most animals regardless of whether or not they live predominantly solitary lives in the wild, the best enrichment for a captive individual is social enrichment or time spent with one or more conspecifics– exhibit mates.  Second to that may be a combination of behavioral training and environmental enrichment. For example, in our four acre, semi-natural exhibit for our Kodiak brown bear cubs, we provide novel stimuli in the form of enclosure furniture. Examples other than log furnishings and water features include, a plastic culvert, a plastic pond mold (structure turned upside down), and training crates.  The culvert is used as a feeding station. We fill the three meter long plastic tube with exhibit debris and then scatter a portion of their puppy chow ration in the culvert to encourage digging and searching behavior. We also scatter produce, fish and shelfish as part of our enrichment program. Tires are also placed strategically around the enclosure and are used to hide food.  The staff also place meal worm dispensers (perforated PVC tubes containing larvae) throughout the exhibit which require that the bears manipulate the devices to access the larvae.  Additional food enrichment may include peanut butter, raisons and honey and other prized offerings. 

Bear Cub, AWCC (Photo By Vanessa Gibson)
Jordan Schaul & Taquka, AWCC (Photo By Vanessa Gibson)

The plans for our B.E.A.R.S. exhibit– a celebration of Alaska’s bears (polar, black, brown (grizzly)) includes rennovations to our existing bear enclosures. These captive habitats will feature more built-in enrichment devices that encourage natural behavior among the resident animals and will take in to account species-specific and gender-specific characteristics of the bears.  I our hope is to tailor enrichment to the individual bear as our sanctuary is home to permanent residents. 

For an interesting perspective on captive bears I encourage you to read my colleague’s book– Smiling Bears: A Zoo Keeper Explores the Behaviour and Emotional Life of Bears . Author Else Poulsen provides insight into these intelligent animals and their lives in captivity. The book not only validates the work of dedicated husbandry personnel, but it captures the heart of zoo visitors.  Another resource for those interested in captive wildlife enrichment is Animal Keepers’ Forum, published by the American Association of Zoo Keepers.



About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: