As animal welfare increasingly becomes a part of the public conversation, it’s becoming more common to see stories about animals living in situations that are harmful to their mental and physical health. Take SeaWorld’s dolphins, or Yemen’s starving zoo animals—or the tragic case of Pizza the polar bear.
Too often we never find out what ultimately happens to these animals. Do they ever leave their decrepit enclosures in that zoo? Do they ever get a reprieve from performing for people? Do they survive their near-death experiences in captivity?
In a new series, “Where are they now?” Wildlife Watch will report on animals whose plights have elicited widespread concern and sympathy, to see how they’re faring now. We begin the series today with an update on a bear called Pizza, who’s been called “the world’s saddest polar bear.” Please send us an email at [email protected] if you’d like to know the status of a particular animal.
It’s been nearly two years since the wider public learned about Pizza, a polar bear who was found living in deplorable conditions at an aquarium in the Grandview Mall in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. The three-year-old bear became the focus of global media attention in the summer of 2016 after footage surfaced of him alone, lying in his bare, concrete enclosure at the shopping mall. Another video showed him swinging his head and biting and pawing at an air vent—behaviors that signal distress.
Animal lovers jumped to his aid. More than a million people signed petitions calling for the release of the “world’s saddest polar bear,” and 50 nonprofit organizations sent a letter to Zhu Xiaodan, the governor of Guangzhou Province, asking him to remove Pizza from the mall. A wildlife park in Doncaster, England, even said it would take in Pizza—an offer wildlife NGOs supported but the mall rejected.
Then a couple of months later, in November, Grandview Mall posted on social media that Pizza has been well cared for but would temporarily be sent back to his birthplace—later determined to be Tianjin Haichang Polar Ocean World, an aquarium in northern China—so the mall could upgrade his exhibit. A spokesman for Grandview later said Pizza would return in June 2017.
So where is Pizza now?
Fans of the polar bear—and anyone who cares about animal welfare—will be happy to know that Pizza hasn’t resumed his role as a mall entertainer. In fact his old exhibit has reportedly closed indefinitely, says Peter Li, China policy specialist for Humane Society International, which worked to free Pizza from the mall.
Pizza has remained at the aquarium in Tianjin, where he’s been living in an enclosure with his mother, Li says. The Texas-based advocate knows this because he’s been in touch with an activist who visited the aquarium in early April 2018.
“Pizza is with his mom and looks apparently happier,” Li says. The aquarium didn’t respond to Wildlife Watch’s request for an interview.
Video and photographs taken of Pizza at the aquarium appear to show a healthy-looking, unstressed animal in a somewhat livelier—and larger—space. While Pizza’s current digs fall far short of the thousands of square miles available to polar bears in the wild, his 2,150-square-foot home is roughly double the size of the mall exhibit, according to measurements reported by Quartz.
In one downright adorable video clip, Pizza and his mother are seen roughhousing together. “To see this bear playing and not focused on pattern behavior, that made me really happy,” says National Geographic Society program officer Sandra Elvin, who used to guide polar bear expeditions in Manitoba, Canada. “He looks a million times better.”
There are likely several reasons for this, according to Li.
For one, Pizza has more time away from the chatter of visitors and the flashes and clicks of their cell phone cameras. The visitors at the Tianjin aquarium aren’t as noisy and the facility is open only during the day, Li says, whereas the mall stayed open into the night.
And Pizza’s new space includes den-like places for him to hide in when he wants alone time—something the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) says in a 2009 manual is necessary for the well-being of polar bears.
Pizza also has social interaction with his mother, which helps to keep his mind active. “Bears are highly intelligent,” says Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo and a bear advisor to the AZA. “You have to think of stuff to keep them engaged instead of allowing them to get bored.”
Indeed, a video clip of Pizza appears to show him begging for food before being tossed something to eat—an activity that indicates there’s at least some effort to engage his mind, Moore says. (He cautions, however, that any training involving begging can lead a bear to beg even when food isn’t available—a potential distress behavior—if the bear is never trained to do more complex activities).
Despite some improvements to Pizza’s living situation, Li says, the aquarium is far from ideal. There’s likely not nearly enough stimulation for him, Li notes, and he thinks it’s problematic that Pizza doesn’t have a bigger enclosure and can’t spend time outdoors in suitable conditions, which the AZA advises is access to shade, chilled water, or ice piles.
As Li puts it, “There’s probably a better place for Pizza than an aquarium in mainland China.”
Many aquariums in China aren’t comparable in quality to ones in the United States or Europe, where the industry has been around for longer and where more attention is given to what animals need for their comfort, Li notes. To make matters worse, there’s no federal law in China that requires facilities to consider the welfare of captive animals—which means there’s no legal incentive for facilities to treat animals humanely.
Wildlife advocates are especially concerned about what this means for animals in shopping malls in China—a growing trend as businesses attempt to offset losses to online shopping. (A report from 2016 predicted that as many as one-third of malls in China could shut down in the next five years.)
“[Shopping malls] are not specialists in animal care, and it’s sending the wrong message to consumers,” Li says. “There’s no educational purpose at all for a commercial business to display animals.”
Pizza wasn’t the only animal held at Grandview Mall, according to multiple news reports from 2016. There were seals, Arctic foxes, and more. According to the Washington Post, aquarium manager Li Chengtang told local media that the facility provides enough space for animals to live and play, but Post reporters described wolves lying listlessly in a small room and beluga whales swimming in tiny tanks. The mall’s website still lists the aquarium as an attraction.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more
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