This month, we are celebrating the 20th birthday of Polly, a Syrian brown bear who was rescued and found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo when she was young. She arrived in September of 2000 after spending the first three-and-a-half years of her life in deplorable conditions. Polly was born at a private breeder’s facility in Virginia in 1997. When she was 4 months old, she was sold to a roadside circus on the East Coast that already had a small menagerie of other animals. When she became too big to handle, Polly was relegated to a small cage with a large, hamster-like performance wheel where she rocked back and forth incessantly.
Several complaints from disturbed circus visitors concerned about the bear’s living conditions prompted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to try to secure her freedom. After months of negotiations, PETA was successful in convincing the circus owner to relinquish the bear. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) accepted PETA’s request to provide a new home for Polly, providing her with the chance to finally experience an environment in which her welfare was of the utmost importance.
After all these years in a safe and stimulating environment, cared for by dedicated DZS staff members, Polly still demonstrates some of the unnatural, stereotypic behaviors she developed living in a small cage, despite being in an environment that is much larger and more suitably complex and stimulating. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see animals continue to demonstrate such behaviors even after they are removed from the conditions that caused the behaviors in the first place. These “behavioral scars” are not a reflection of current conditions, but rather of past traumatic experiences that forever alter an animal’s behavior and life. DZS staff members monitor Polly closely, as they do all of the animals, and use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment, as well as allowing her to exercise as much choice and control over her environment as possible to provide her with a safe and comfortable home that meets her physical, behavioral and emotional needs.
Polly reminds us that animals which are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and other “shows”, are usually harmed in the process of their training or their living conditions, and often irreparably. All animals deserve to live in environments in which they can thrive, not just survive, and once they are scarred, they often can never be fully healed, despite the great care sanctuaries, like the Detroit Zoo, provide them.
– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.