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Paws & Reflect on Japan's Bear Parks


Paws & Reflect on Japan’s bear parks

Wild Welfare is visiting Japan in December, to follow up on its investigation into Japan’s bear parks, which will ultimately help raise animal welfare standards throughout the country.

Back in 2005, the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums carried out an investigation into the conditions for bears held in Japan’s bear parks. Historically, these parks (there are approximately eight in total with around 400 bears), began as centres to care for orphaned (as a result of hunting and encroachment) cubs, but the centres found the young bears to be popular with the public — with the result that breeding the animals was encouraged over a number of generations, providing a regular supply of cubs for what was also a profitable enterprise. These days, several of the parks are keeping hundreds of bears in simple, stark, concrete pits.

The findings from the 2005 report indicated serious welfare issues. Overcrowding and poor vet and keeper care resulted in obvious health concerns such as lacerations, limping, torn ears, skin conditions and chronic conjunctivitis. There was little or no behavioural enrichment, resulting in lethargic or stereotypical behaviour, and begging when the public threw food. Breeding of the bears occurred, with the parks admitting that this encouraged visitors and circus acts with bears dressed up and riding bikes was evident. The parks visited were given a summary of key concerns and recommendations, but a follow up visit in 2007 carried out by Wild Welfare’s Projects Director Georgina Allen), confirmed that few of these recommendations had been considered.

In May, 2015, Wild Welfare carried out its own investigation1, visiting five of the bear parks, which continued to show distressing conditions for hundreds of bears.

Key findings from this investigation include:

• Circus-like shows and photo opportunities with young bears dressed up in clothes.
• One park had such chronic and acute skin conditions that bears had lost all of their fur.
• Significantly high levels of lethargy and begging behaviors.
• Aggression and fighting, particularly when the public threw food at the bears.

We followed up with this report by disseminating the results to the bear parks themselves and writing to the local prefectures in charge of monitoring animal welfare. The animal welfare group, the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS), also shared the report with its members. In December 2016, the first ‘Study Meeting on the Care and Management of Captive Bears’, was held. This workshop focussed on veterinary care and management for captive bears. We were delighted to be joined by Kaori Sakamoto as translator, Dr Heather Bacon, from the University of Edinburgh Veterinary Welfare Education and Outreach Centre and Dr Monica Bando, who is currently studying for her PhD at Washington State University.

On the 3rd and 4th of December we will be returning to Japan at the invitation of Dr Naoya Matsumoto, who attended our workshop in December 2016. We will be presenting on captive bear welfare at Noboribetsu Bear Park, during the Brown Bear Association Conference.  Following this presentation, we will be holding a day’s practical training workshop, working with staff at their facility to identify improved welfare practices. During this visit we will also be building upon our partnership with JAWS and visiting two smaller facilities that are holding brown bears to discuss solutions to improve conditions. One of these we have already visited this summer with the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquarium (JAZA), JAWS and the Japan Bear Network (JBN) and we hope to continue where we left off with regards to moving forward positive solutions for these bears.

We are really pleased to see a diverse set of organisations from the zoo, academic and animal welfare community step up and work together on this issue ” said Georgina Allen, Wild Welfare’s projects director. “It’s a great example on how collaboration can provide the support needed for change to happen”

 But why the focus on bears?

Japan has hundreds of zoos, aquariums and other captive facilities of varying standards and Wild Welfare have also been working with JAZA this year to identify welfare training needs and welfare-based monitoring for its members. JAZA itself and some members within JAZA continue to strive to achieve high standards of care, while others, bound by no animal protection standards or regulations by JAZA – small facilities found on top of shopping mall buildings for example – have no institutional standards and are merely entertainment centres that give no consideration to animal welfare or care. An investigation like this can provide up-to-date information on the extremely concerning welfare concerns within some of these parks and be used to approach the relevant authorities about enacting appropriate and binding standards that protect the welfare for all captive wild animals in Japan. It can also connect an ever-growing team of animal welfare non-governmental organisations in Japan and help develop the capacity to work on captive wild animal initiatives.

By working directly with the parks, setting standards and working with key stakeholders and influencers within the zoo and aquarium and animal welfare sectors of Japan, we can collectively encourage a positive, long-term solution for not only the bears in these parks, but also place a spotlight on why animal welfare is so important for captive wild animals, and how we, collectively can make improvements within Japan’s zoos and aquariums.

We are excited to be in a position to support the Japanese captive wild animal community and we appreciate all their continued support, enthusiasm and expertise to help raise animal welfare standards in the region,” added Georgina Allen.


Notes to Editors

  1. Read the full investigation report here.

For more information or interview requests please contact Wild Welfare on Wild Welfare is a global organisation committed to improving animal welfare standards in captive wild animal facilities. Its mission is to partner with zoo associations, accredited zoos and aquariums, zoo professionals and leading international animal welfare organizations in identifying and improving the conditions of captive wild animals kept under circumstances of severe distress.

Wild Welfare was established in 2012 and has rapidly established itself as an internationally recognised hub in zoo animal welfare reform, forming effective collaborative relationships with a number of animal welfare NGOs, reputable universities and professional bodies.

Wild Welfare’s vision is to end the suffering of captive wild animals around the world and ensure that full and sustainable protection is given to all animals in human care.