Keeping Bears Wild Initiative


Since Zoocheck’s inception in 1984, bears of all kinds have featured prominently in our work. In fact, it was a young black bear chained in a crate at a now defunct Ontario roadside zoo that began the process that led to the establishment of Zoocheck as a formal organization and charity.

Bears are one of the common  large species found in the majority of zoos, large and small, and private wildlife menageries in Canada, even though they should ideally be kept in very large natural spaces with high degrees of mental and physical stimulation. Some experts rank bears as among the worst candidates for captivity due to their unique, challenging biological, behavioural and husbandry requirements.  Historically, the majority of bears in captivity came out of the wild as orphaned cubs (or, in some cases, “problem” adults) and were sent to live out their lives in a variety of captive situations in conditions that ranged from horribly substandard and cruel to adequate.  

For example, it was common in the past to see bears across the country kept in tiny cages outside of gas stations and diners, in roadside zoos, private wildlife menageries, entertainment venues and kept as pets.  Traditional circuses that toured with bears were particularly noteworthy with bears sometimes being kept in cages that were shorter in length than the bears and that didn’t even allow the bears to turn around, except with great difficulty.

Many of the larger, professional zoos also sourced (or were willing to accept) orphaned bear cubs and adult bears from governmental agencies and use them to attract the public or, at times, in animal exchanges with other zoos worldwide. Typically, when bears are accepted by a zoo they refer to it as a “rescue”, but a more accurate term might be “opportunistic acquisition.”


The fact that so many captive bears were being sourced from the wild led Zoocheck to expand from working to improve the lives of captive bears to also working to keep bears in the wild where they belong. Our initiatives throughout the years have focused predominantly on American black bears, brown (Grizzly) bears and polar bears, but we have had some involvement with other bear species (e.g., pandas) as well.

In pursuit of keeping bears wild Zoocheck has engaged in advocating for more humane, modern policies and procedures for addressing human-bear conflict situations, including delivery of numerous “bear safe” public awareness events,  lobbying and litigating against the politically-motivated spring hunting of black bears in Ontario, working to establish bear rehabilitation in provinces where it did not exist previously, including providing support for creation of Manitoba Bear Rescue and pilot project for release of orphaned black bear cubs , pushing for grizzly bear rehabilitation in Alberta and British Columbia and reinstatement of bear rehabilitation in Saskatchewan, and successfully campaigning in the 1990s to stop the export of wild caught polar bears to zoos throughout the world, including promoting strategies for the repatriation of polar bears back into the wild.


Zoocheck believes that one facet of keeping bears in the wild is working with governments, non-governmental organizations and others to institute bear rehabilitation and release programs that give bears a second chance to live the life they were born into in the wild, rather than in captivity.  

Our efforts have helped to improve the prospects for orphaned bear cubs (and, in some cases, adult bears) and most provinces now have rehabilitation programs for orphaned black bears cubs.  Our most recent accomplishment for black bears was to assist in the set up of Black Bear Rescue Manitoba (BBRM), the first rehabilitation facility and release program in Manitoba. Previously there was none in the province, leaving orphaned cubs to either be shot or sent to zoos.

Zoocheck was also successful in helping to get grizzly bear rehabilitation instituted in British Columbia after a lengthy campaign to try to help two orphaned cubs (that came from BC) in Alberta.  To date, Alberta is still reluctant to allow a similar program in their province, so our efforts to change that situation continue. We have also been pushing for reinstatement of bear rehabilitation in Saskatchewan.


In the 1990’s Zoocheck conducted an investigation into the fate of Manitoban orphaned polar bear cubs and “problem” adult bears that were captured and exported to zoos throughout the world. We found that many of the exported bears had died or were lingering in horrific conditions in temperate and tropical countries.  Our comprehensive efforts led to new, stricter, criteria for exporting polar bears and the first ever polar bear reintroduction program using surrogate wild bear mothers. 

Unfortunately, the Manitoba government chose to abandon the experimental reintroduction program claiming it was unsuccessful despite not having sufficient data to support that belief. They also said the impact of post release monitoring of the bears by helicopter was too invasive, even though the alternative for orphaned bear cubs was “euthanasia” or life in captivity. In addition, despite new, non-invasive technologies for tracking bears and other animals, Manitoba has opted for the zoo placement option.

Since Zoocheck’s initial campaign to end Manitoba’s polar bear export program, the Polar Bear Protection Act (PBPA) was passed. Amongst other things, it established minimal standards for polar bears in captivity.

Subsequent to the PBPA being passed, a number of zoo industry and NGO organizations made attempts to restart polar bear exports to “reputable” zoos, but those plans did not come to fruition. Zoocheck opposed the idea but it was the uplisting of polar bears in the US Endangered Species Act that effectively killed the plan.

Currently, orphaned cubs may be still be caught by government officials and then sent to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, with some subsequently being moved to other facilities. While this program provides zoos with attraction animals, it does almost nothing to help solve the problems that polar bears face in the wild (primarily climate change, excessive development, human/polar conflicts, hunting) increase the chances of polar bears surviving in the wild.


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