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Understanding Captive Sun Bear Welfare

Wild Welfare investigates the recent surge of attention around captive sun bear welfare.

Understanding Captive Sun Bear Welfare

“Behaviour is always meaningful”.

This statement by Dr. Heather Bacon, OBE and Wild Welfare trustee, reminds us of the significance of captive animal behaviour when assessing their welfare.

Recently, sun bear behaviour has swept the headlines worldwide. Videos of a Malayan sun bear, standing upright on its hind legs and waving a paw, sparked rumours that the bear was actually a human dressed in a bear suit. The Malayan sun bear’s distinctive slender legs and folds of fur added fuel to the speculation, looking – according to passionate online investigators – like the trademarks of an ill-fitting costume. Experts have since debunked these rumours, but what does this mean for public perception of animal behaviour and welfare?

Sun bears, known for their distinguishing golden crescent chest mark, can develop begging behaviours when they receive food from the public. This may seem cute or harmless at first glance, but such abnormal actions can be classified as a stereotypical behaviour – a repetitive or ritualistic movement, posture or even vocalisation. When sun bears exhibit begging-type behaviours, it can indicate an underlying issue. Stereotypical behaviours often arise when animals are unable to cope with the limitations of their environment.

As Dr. Bacon highlighted, an animal’s behaviour is a valuable indicator of its emotional and mental state. Abnormal behaviours, such as begging or pacing, can be red flags that suggest an animal is facing challenges in its environment. These signs of distress can point to inadequate living conditions, lack of proper mental and physical stimulation, or even health issues. As caretakers of captive animals, it’s our responsibility to understand these behaviours and take action to ensure the animals’ well-being.

In captivity, there are a number of positive behaviours that should be encouraged, which mimic a sun bear’s life in the wild. As care practitioners, we like to see digging, climbing, foraging, and resting, as well as play with suitable social groups and, of course, sleeping. Behaviours to be discouraged include pacing, begging, head roiling, over-grooming and biting paws. Our Care For Us guide provides simple, informative advice on the care and welfare of sun bears in captivity, available in English, Japanese, and Bahasa Indonesian.

While it’s encouraging to see a surge in public interest in sun bear welfare after the viral human suit debacle, there are also risks to their sudden rush of popularity. The heightened attention could inadvertently encourage illegal wildlife trade, as demand for the world’s smallest bear might lead to their capture and sale for private ownership or small-scale zoos. It is crucial to harness this interest in a responsible manner, focusing on conservation and welfare.

At Wild Welfare, we’ve been actively engaged in initiatives to improve the lives of sun bears in captivity. Our work extends beyond raising awareness to taking tangible steps that positively impact their welfare. We have worked closely with animal care facilities to revamp enclosures, provide enriching environments, and train animal care staff. This hands-on approach ensures that sun bears have better living conditions that cater to their natural behaviours and needs.

Animal Welfare Field Manager Sarah, with a sun bear

We have trained animal care teams who work with rescued sun bears in bear specific sanctuaries in Laos and Vietnam.  Our commitment also extends to auditing facilities where sun bears are held across Asia. By also training auditors in country, we ensure the continuation of these audits into the future, in hopes that the facilities adhere to proper welfare standards, guaranteeing a better quality of life for their captive animals.

One of our more recent collaborations involves a facility in Malaysia, where we are working on improving the care and welfare of seven sun bears. We are excited to share a full trip report from this field work soon. In these environments, our holistic approach focuses not only on the animals themselves but also on empowering the animal care staff to drive meaningful welfare improvements. We provide resources, knowledge, and inspiration to encourage positive changes in the care practices for sun bears.

Interested in improving the lives of captive wild animals? Wild Welfare welcome you to take part in our free E-Learning Programme, Wild About Welfare. Offered in English, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Bahasa Indonesia, participants will be upskilled in the essential components of animal care and management, which can help improve welfare standards for animals.

Not an animal care giver? You can help Wild Welfare improve the lives of captive animals by supporting our efforts. Share this article, sign up to our newsletter, follow our social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter/X), or make a donation. As little as £5 can help us develop accessible animal resources. As a small charity we are reliant upon the generosity of those who are passionate about improving captive animal lives. Please consider donating here.


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