If you are an animal lover, a zoo might be your favorite place; you get to see animals you have never seen and possibly never will see in their natural habitat up close. You might also think that the zoo is a great place to learn about wild animals … as if they were living in the wild … but unfortunately, it’s not quite like that. A zoo is a poor substitution for an animal’s natural habitat and try as zoo officials might, they always will be.

In the wild, animals get to choose their mates. In zoos, officials do the choosing and it doesn’t always work out. Recently, The Local, a Danish news website, reported that Ivan, a male polar bear living in the Copenhagen Zoo (which has been the site of its fair share of controversy, most notably their choice to slaughter a giraffe in front of a crowd), will be transferred to the Scandinavian Wildlife Park because he and Noel, the mate chosen for him, do not get along – they call it a “divorce.” According to spokesperson Bengt Holst, “they simply don’t like each other in particular our female bear tries to avoid the male. And that’s a problem. She often swims back and forth in the enclosure because she is stressed.”

To us, it sounds like Noel, the female polar bear, was exhibiting clear symptoms of a psychological condition zoochosis. Signs include over-grooming, self-inflicted harm, and repetitive behavior including rocking, swaying, pacing, and in this polar bear’s case, swimming. In the wild, Noel would have thousands of miles of ice to explore. But in captivity, what can she do? According to Polar Bears International, “Some 85 percent of North American polar bears [in zoos] do it, devoting nearly a quarter of their ‘active day’ (i.e. the time they spend alert and moving) to this behavior.” In order to cover up signs of mental illness in their animals, some zoos have even taken to prescribing them antidepressants. Gus, Central Park Zoo’s now-deceased polar bear who lived in a 5,000-square foot space, would infamously swim figure-eight patterns for hours at a time. To remedy this, the zoo gave him Prozac and the swimming became less of a problem, but never completely disappeared.

We aren’t blaming anyone for anthropomorphizing their pets; talking to your critters like they are human is a far stretch from what news sites are doing. By putting the spin on this story as if the two polar bears willingly said “I do” to each other and then decided that maybe they weren’t right for each other, the zoo is perpetuating the idea that animals who live in zoos are happy captives. It’s ridiculous to think of this as some sort of romantic spat.

The zoo putting these two polar bears together and expecting them to make it work is almost like being forced to shack up with the first person you “like” on that dating app — except even when you’re on the app, you make the choice to like that anonymous person. The two polar bears involved had no choice of who their partner is and as long as they live in captivity, they never will. Sadly, they will only remain pawns of zoos who are hoping that their union will eventually produce a cub. Not for conservation’s sake, but because with baby animals comes plenty of money and publicity.

So, if you grew up loving zoos, we understand. We’ve all been sold the myth of happy zoos. But the reality is, life for animals in zoos is not a happy one. You can take a stand against captivity by vowing to never attend any place that puts captive animals on display and by sharing this story to raise awareness.

Lead image source: Fotokon/Shutterstock