Published: 03/01/2018 16:55 - Updated: 03/01/2018 16:59

Mixed reaction to Kincraig's polar bear birth

Written byTom Ramage


Victoria pictured at her former home


Badenoch and Strathspey is celebrating the birth at Kincraig of the country’s first polar bear for a quarter of a century.

But some are not celebrating - among them the anti-zoo movement Born Free.

It was this morning (Wednesday, January 3) that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland confirmed its resident female polar bear Victoria has given birth at the Highland Wildlife Park.

Describing the birth as an "outstanding achievement which will have interest across the world", the charity stressed that the first three months were perilous for polar bear cubs, whether wild or captive born.

Staff confirmed the birth having heard distinct high-pitched sounds from Victoria’s maternity den, which remains closed to visitors to ensure privacy.

Una Richardson, the park’s Head Keeper responsible for carnivores, said, "We first heard promising noises in the week before Christmas and these have now continued into the new year. Because we don’t have sight inside her cubbing box we can’t be sure if Victoria has had more than one cub but we can confirm the birth.

"While we are absolutely thrilled, we are not celebrating prematurely as polar bear cubs have a high mortality rate in the first weeks of life due to their undeveloped immune system and the mother’s exaggerated need for privacy, with any disturbance risking the cub being killed or abandoned.

"We will continue to monitor Victoria and very much hope for the best possible news when she emerges around March. Until then, Victoria’s enclosure will be closed to the public and keeper activity will be at a minimum to give her offspring every chance of survival."

New-born polar bear cubs are blind, around 30cm long and weigh little more than a guinea pig. They only open their eyes when they are a month old and are entirely dependent on their mother, feeding on fat-rich milk to grow quickly, weighing around ten to 12 kg by the time they leave their den.

Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, said, "The arrival of a polar bear cub is a tremendous husbandry accomplishment for our team.

"When Victoria arrived here in 2015 it was another tangible step in RZSS developing a new method of captive polar bear management, by providing a naturalistic habitat in a climate that is not so different from the one they have evolved to cope with.

"This success has been based on a radically different approach to their care and husbandry to mirror what would happen in the wild."

But reacting to news, Born Free president Will Travers said: "Born Free sees this as more of a tragedy in the making. Research commissioned by Born Free in 1987, and subsequent evaluations of polar bears in captivity, indicate that the species is profoundly ill-suited to the zoo environment with widespread display of stereotypic abnormal behaviours, infanticide and high rates of cub mortality.

At a time when the zoo community should be phasing-out the keeping of polar bears in captivity, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has decided to row against the tide.

"From a welfare point of view, the enclosure at the Highland Wildlife Park may be significantly better than the blue-rinse concrete pits that people so often associate with polar bears in zoos, but we contend that our efforts on behalf of this species should be focused on mitigating the impacts of human-induced climate change and securing the species in the wild, not subjecting another polar bear to a lifetime in captivity.

"Will this infant polar bear fare any better than the young polar bear born at Berlin zoo, who was reported dead on Tuesday 2nd January 2018, aged 26 days, or the cub born to the same mother who was found dead in March 2017?

"Born Free and our many supporters around the world sadly cannot celebrate events at the Highland Wildlife Park. It is not the start to 2018 that we would hope for."

See more on the birth in tomorrow’s Strathspey and Badenoch Herald.

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