Looking at the picture of a tiny polar bear cub sweetly clutching a white teddy bear while fast asleep will make most viewers “ooh” and “aah” in delight. That’s because baby animals are undeniably the cutest things on the planet, especially when they’re snoozing. More scientifically, though, research has shown that whether we have children or not, we all have parental predispositions that make us inclined to protect juveniles.

When the picture shows a majestic wild animal we don’t encounter often, if at all, such as the polar bear, the image is straightaway even more appealing due to the rarity of its subject. And if the animal is sleeping, yawning or cuddling a soft toy, it’s almost certain to take the “oohing” and “aahing” to a whole new level.

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Our propensity to find animals cute can be extremely beneficial when harnessed positively — for instance, when it inspires us to take action to save them. Unfortunately, animals’ cuteness also put them at great risk of exploitation. Take this particular polar bear cub. Her name is Nora and she is just a few weeks old in this photo.

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She may seem content sleeping softly on her teddy bear, but what the image doesn’t tell us is that this animal has a tragic future ahead of her. Nora was born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, in Ohio where she will certainly live out her days in captivity for human entertainment. A life confined to a barren enclosure thousands of miles from her natural habitat to be gawked at each day by hundreds of noisy visitors is no life for a wild animal.

Last year, tabloids circulated pictures and videos of Nora snoring sweetly just weeks after she was born, encouraging viewers to marvel at her cuteness. Sorely missing from the images and footage, however, is the cub’s mother, Aurora, a fellow Columbus Zoo resident.

Unfortunately, Aurora rejected Nora shortly after her birth. Instead, Nora had to be hand-reared by zookeepers, which explains the need to replace the soothing maternal figure with various soft toys to comfort the young animal. It’s relatively rare for animals to abandon their young in the wild. This is only done if the baby poses a threat to the parent or the group/herd’s survival. However, cases of zoo animals rejecting their young are abundant.

This is because captivity distorts wild animals’ behavior, causing them to behave in perplexing and harmful ways. Animals raised in a captive environment have not had the chance to watch other members of their species care for their young as they would in the wild. Thus, when captive mothers produce offspring, they have no idea how to raise them, having been denied the opportunity to learn from family members.

The stress of captivity can even cause mothers to harm their young. In 2008, a mother polar bear ate her two young cubs and in 2013, an elephant trampled her newborn calf, with experts believing that anxiety due to confinement in a zoo had interfered with the mothers’ protective instincts for their offspring.

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These are only two examples out of many. Craig Redmond, of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), explains that “deaths and rejection of young happen at zoos worldwide every day,” because the “learning behavior that is so crucial for survival in the wild is stripped away by captivity.” This will have grave consequences for little Nora, as rejected offspring suffer the trauma of early abandonment and may go on to reject their young as well.

Moreover, it is well known that despite their claims to the contrary, zoos are merely profit-making enterprises with little to no concern for species conservation. The Columbus Zoo’s page on Nora admits that polar bear populations are dwindling due to the disappearance of their Arctic habitat with only 20,000 polar bear left in the wild. Yet the zoo continues to proudly exhibit their captive polar bear trophies when they should be striving to strengthen their numbers in their natural habitat instead.

Zoos may claim to teach us about wild animals but as the executive director at the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy (KCAA), Lori Marino explains, “there is no current evidence, from well-controlled studies in the peer-reviewed literature, supporting the argument that captive animal displays are educational or promote conservation in any meaningful sense.”

Instead, by imprisoning animals for profit, such facilities only spread the harmful message that it’s acceptable to exploit sentient creatures for our entertainment. As Craig Redmond rightly states, “what zoos teach us is that captivity is an unnatural place for any animal,” adding that if we do not want to see captive animals killing or rejecting their young “we must phase out zoos and protect natural habitats for the benefit of all species.”

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What You Can Do

Nora may never get to experience the life she deserved in the wild, but there are ways you can help other animals escape this tragic fate. Never patronize a facility that keeps animals captive for profit, these include zoos, circuses, aquariums, and various places posing as “rescues” and “wildlife parks.” Instead, do your research and be sure to only visit accredited sanctuaries that actually help the animals, do not breed them, and always put their welfare first.

And remember to exercise caution when sharing photos and videos of “cute” exotic animals. It is vital to be critical about viral images of baby wild animals by asking yourself the following questions: Do the images/videos come from a reputable sanctuary or from a zoo or tourist attraction that exploits animals for profit? If it purports to be the former, could it be a scam? If it is a baby animal, where is its mother? If the photo/video comes from a zoo or other facility that keeps animals captive and if the animal is being used as a selfie prop or to entertain people, chances are her or she isn’t in a good situation and it is therefore best not to share the image or footage.

Image source: Musal/Imgur