Japan’s bear parks began as centres to care for orphaned (as a result of hunting and habitat encroachment) bear cubs. The centres soon found the young bears were popular with the public which resulted in the breeding of animals over a number of generations and a steady supply of cubs.
This soon got out of control, largely because bears are long-lived and relatively robust animals and can survive in poor quality environments. Overcrowding became the norm and the bears, which were kept in rows of simple, stark, concrete pits, suffered from a range of physical and psychological welfare concerns.
Wild Welfare carried out an investigation into Japan’s bear parks in 2015, finding that more than 400 bears are still housed in eight bear parks across the country, with most living in poor conditions, where overcrowding, circus-style performances and unregulated feeding by tourists are just some of the ongoing welfare issues facing these bears.
We deliver animal care and welfare training, bear welfare management workshops and bear enrichment training to help improve conditions for bears living in these bear parks, sometimes we work one on one with a park and more often we partner with bear experts and welfare organisations, including the Japanese Bear Network and The Winton Foundation for the Welfare of Bears. Our work is enabling bear park staff, including bear keepers and veterinarians, an opportunity to see how they can improve conditions for their bears.
In 2018, we secured the successful rehoming of four bears living in a small museum in Northern Japan, to a wildlife park in the UK. Although not a bear park, the museum conditions were not dissimilar to many of the parks – the bears were living in cramped, concrete cages and had no opportunity to exhibit normal bear behaviours. The bears are now living an enriched life in the UK’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park, and their move enabled us to develop even stronger, more constructive partnerships with a huge range of people in Japan who can help our projects there achieve even more for wild animals in captivity.