Bears in Captivity

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The Maymont black bears (Large Bear and Small Bear) entered captivity out of necessity. The small bear was found as an undernourished cub that would not have survived on his own. The large bear had to be relocated after becoming too comfortable with people and campsites. He was no longer afraid of humans, and that fear is required for his and campers’ safety. These bears served as replacements after the incident in 2006, where a mother lifted her four-year-old son over one of the fences to feed the bears. The child was scratched (no stitches) and both bears, Buster and Baby, were killed to be tested for rabies. My seven-year-old self, and the Richmond community, were outraged at the time. Bears are my favorite animal, and I have always thought of myself as fortunate to live so close to some. I loved to visit them any chance I got. However, when my sister Jennifer Romer (‘09) began a Maymont-related senior project, my perspective began to change.

The Large Bear. Photo courtesy of

Jennifer’s senior project was to watch the bears and record their behavior. The park was worried about the larger bear. He would walk aimlessly back and forth in a line for hours on end, creating a path in the ground. This is referred to as stereotypic movement, and it is correlated with a lack of stimuli, social deprivation, and frustration. It is unknown what the source of the bear’s behavior is; however, distressed behavior is common for animals in captivity, especially among more intelligent mammals. Pacing, over-grooming, self-mutilation, and sham chewing have been recorded in captive animals.

Orca whales, in particular, show several human-like symptoms of distress or depression. Some refuse to nurse their young, and others have repeatedly headbutted their enclosure walls. In one case, an orca appeared to attempt suicide. Captivity is a more drastic situation for large sea mammals than bears, as they are used to having the freedom of miles and leagues of the open ocean. Other sea creatures, such as great white sharks, cannot survive in captivity because of this lack of freedom. The documentary Blackfish exposes the extent that the orcas suffer in captivity and the psychological effects. The film covers an orca named Tilikum, who displayed abnormally aggressive behavior in captivity at SeaWorld.

When I last visited Maymont, the large bear walked around the gate to his sleeping cage, as if he just wanted to go back to bed instead of dealing with spectators. Bears are used to large expanses where they can hunt and gather. This particular bear had grown accustomed to roaming around and stealing food from campsites. Experts deemed captivity a necessary alternative to putting him down. Maymont is a very accommodating environment, but the bears seem smart enough to understand that the are trapped. 

The Bear Enclosure. Photo courtesy of

They roam the tree-filled, hilly enclosure, they have a pond to swim in, the park could not have done better given their resources. However, captivity has a profound effect on some animals, and the bears’ distress will always be in the back of my mind when I visit.

Feature image credit: Kelly Armentrout via



About the author

Michael Romer enjoys long walks and the beach, separately.