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The Asiatic Black Bear House and Enclosures at Glasgow Zoopark

In 1986, Glasgow Zoo was approached by officials of Dumbarton District Council seeking assistance with the problem of bears at Cameron Loch Lomond Wildlife Park (formerly, Loch Lomond Bear Park). Seventeen Brown and Black bears were kept in a large, open compound and were forever escaping. The Local Authority was on the point of serving an enforcement order, which could have resulted in the destruction of all the bears.

With the assistance of the Federation of Zoos, Clive Hollands of the St Andrew Animal Fund, John Robbins of Animal Concern (Scotland) Ltd., Clubb-Chipperfield, and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, homes were found for the majority of the bears. The owners then asked Glasgow Zoo if we would take the group of Asiatic Black Bears. Having been unable to place these bears in any collection in Europe, we considered this request seriously, as there seemed to be a very real possibility that the bears might have to be destroyed. The owners offered to contribute a maximum of 30,000 gbps towards the cost of the bears' relocation and housing and, at the request of Clive Hollands, also agreed to contribute as much of the existing perimeter fencing as we required.

We were extremely cautious as we already had three Polar bears. All were in their thirties and were exhibited in their original enclosure which, when it was constructed in 1959, was believed to be very large but soon became outdated. We were anxious not to commit ourselves to project which because of limited funding might be:
a) too small or inadequate at the outset, or
b) became so with the advent of additional knowledge within the lifetime of the bears.

By now we were working very closely with Clive Hollands and Jeff Robbins, and a site was identified towards the rear of the developed Zoo on land also owned by our Zoological Society. This consisted of a deep, incised valley containing many mature trees and thick with undergrowth. It would, we felt, give us the sort of "enriched" habitat which would make a sufficiently stimulating enclosure for such intelligent and inquisitive animals, provided we could afford to fence enough of it. Even with the original Loch Lomond fencing being re-used the costs were considerable, especially as the fence had to be dismantled carefully and then re-erected. To comply with the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act the fence also had to be buried one metre into the ground and a further one metre inward-facing at that point along its entire length.

After many further discussions and costings it was eventually decided to proceed even though the full cost of the project was likely to be well in excess of the 30,000 gbps. However, we felt that, with the assistance of the Manpower Services Commission, "Community Programme" teams which could carry out much of the work, the project was feasible.

For reasons of accessibility and security we planned to locate the house and the first enclosure (of approximately one acre) on top of the hill. The second enclosure (approximately 3 acres) would be immediately adjacent and run down the 35 degree, wooded valley sides where at its foot it would enclose part of a stream. The total length of the fence was approximately 900 metres and proved supremely difficult to erect in places because of the steepness of the terrain and the necessity for burying the wire so deeply and thoroughly underground.

To prevent the bears from climbing over the 2.5 metre weldmesh fence it is topped with 1.5 metres of corrugated iron. This is unsightly, although the effect has been softened to some extent by careful painting, by positioning the fence close to the banking or against hedging, and by further planting. The 120 metres of fence on the far side of the valley is almost invisible, being below eye level and hidden by vegetation.

Electric fencing does not, in general, work for bears in such situations. The only alternative to a fence would have been a brick wall 3.5 metres high. This would however, be prohibitively expensive. The high cost of the perimeter barrier is probably the main reason why many zoo bear enclosures are still so small.

Because of our negative experiences with Polar bears, we were determined to create two large outside enclosures so that the bears could be enticed into one or the other without the necessity for locking them into a house, per se. This would permit both easy maintenance and "enrichment" such as the scattering of food items in the undergrowth. One enclosure could also, theoretically, be "rested" either to conserve the habitat or to re-stimulate the bears' interest.

Having seen the way the bears lived at Loch Lomond - where some had dug natural dens underground - we were aware that housing for bears need not be elaborate. However, we felt it important that the house be constructed to a high standard, both aesthetically and in terms of the bears' welfare. Because these animals have been kept in captivity for centuries, are hardy and tolerant, and are extremely strong and destructive, bear dens in zoos have tended to be little more than concrete dungeons, sometimes damp and unpleasant.

There were some interesting lessons to be learned from the way the bears were managed at Loch Lomond. For example, the underground dens were invariably dug into sandy, south-facing banks and were dry. Sometimes they were even dug (deliberately, we feel) under a tarmacadamed road to provide a waterproof covering. The bears also created above-ground, sunbathing nests. These were always situated on a sunny ridge or knoll with a good view towards the main gate and any other vista which the particular bear considered important, for instance, a section of the perimeter road outside the fence where they could get early warning of the approach of a keeper's vehicle. Both types of nests were lined with well-chewed hay.

When not curled up sleeping the bears would sit in the outside nests, Buddha-like, swaying from side to side. Just outside the nest rim would be a fairly neat assortment of favoured objects consisting mainly of stored food items, i.e. dried meat on bones, smooth stones and pieces of wood. There were never any faeces in the nest or close to it.

For the preliminary estimates for the house we used the basic dimensions of the new bear dens at West Berlin Zoo. Eventually a house was constructed consisting of four inside dens each approximately 3.5 metres in length by 2 metres in width and with weldmesh fronts and no bars (particularly requested by Clive Hollands). We deliberately made the dens high - nearly 3 metres - and roofed them with pre-cast concrete slabs. This then permitted us to provide furniture at different levels.

Initially, we were only thinking of high level resting ledges and benches. However, we soon improved on this with some innovatory den furniture. This ranged from high-level, hay-filled hammocks constructed of welded steel flat bar and bolted into the corners about 2 metres above the floor, to wooden ledges and heavy ladders.

Because of our experience with Polar bears, who can be frustratingly difficult to entice into the house to permit servicing of the outdoor enclosure, we put a great deal of thought and effort into the design of the doors between the dens and the main enclosure. We decided to use heavy steel doors connected by wire hawsers above the concrete ceiling and counterweighted so that they would move smoothly, quickly and quietly. Because the keeper can move each door from inside the house whilst simultaneously making available a "reward" of a food item through the weldmesh front, these bears are now very straightforward to secure when necessary. There is little of the stress which is a feature of so many other, older enclosures elsewhere.

In terms of "artificial" furniture in the outside enclosures, little has been provided in the lower, wooded enclosure, where a natural environment was preferred. In the top enclosure we have constructed some very tall, heavy wooden platforms and covered rain shelters.

In 1989, the innovatory nature of these enclosures and house was recognised by the gaining of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare National Zoo Animal Welfare Award, the first time this had been achieved in Scotland. At the presentation, we were humbled to hear TV zoo vet, David Taylor, describe them as "the best zoo bear enclosures in the world".