years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
General husbandry and management practice for asiatic black bears (Moon bears): enrichment
What is enrichment?
Environmental enrichment has been defined as “The actions taken to enhance the well being of
captive animals by identifying and providing key environmental stimuli” (Swaisgood 2007).
Animals in the wild have a strong “genetic drive” to perform certain behaviours, so if we are to
keep them healthy in captivity we need to provide them with an environment which allows them to
perform these behaviours. For example, bears have a strong drive to forage for food, and even if
captive bears are provided with all their nutritional needs, they will become frustrated and stressed
if they cannot forage. Enrichment means more than just giving animals the chance to “play”; it
means giving animals the chance to express their natural behaviour, which is essential for their
physical and emotional wellbeing, and therefore for their welfare.
Why should we use enrichment for captive animals?
The "Five Freedoms" of animal welfare, developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in the UK
in 1979, are used by governments and animal organisations worldwide as a basis for assessing
captive animal welfare:
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury or disease
Freedom to express normal behaviour
Freedom from fear or distress
Enrichment can help to achieve some of the requirements of the five freedoms in captive animals:
A thoughtful enrichment programme can significantly improve the lives of captive animals
by helping to allow them to express normal behaviour, which in turn can reduce fear and
distress, reduce discomfort, and help reduce pain, injury and disease.
A good enrichment programme can help to reduce “stereotypic behaviour”, such as
repetitive pacing, swaying, bar sucking or chewing, continuous rubbing, and licking or
sucking body parts, which develop when animals have little or no environmental stimuli
The implementation of a good enrichment programme can increase empathy and promote a
closer bond between keeper and animal(s)
A good enrichment programme can increase visitor interest, and enhance visitor experience
and education, by allowing the animal(s) to display more naturalistic behaviours (Davey et.
al. 2005). Conservation mindedness in visitors to places where animals are held in captivity
can only be increased by emphasizing animals' natural environment and behaviour
Enrichment should not be regarded as an “optional extra” for captive animals, but rather as an essential part of their keeping, along with the provision of suitable food, plentiful clean water, and appropriate health care. All animals should be given enrichment, not just those on public display.
These bears are in an un-enriched concrete pit, and will develop all kinds of problems, as well as being a terrible “exhibit” for the viewing public.
What kinds of enrichment are there for bears?
Enrichment programmes should always include two forms of enrichment:
Together they form a complete enrichment programme which should be designed to meet the
animals' behavioural and physiological needs.
Enrichment comes in many forms, although it can be broken down into a number of basic
Exhibit design / Physical enrichment
This involves anything that is part of the animals' surroundings, exhibit, den, exercise
area or environment. Exhibit or enclosure furniture such as climbing structures, pools,
pits, mud wallows, and large logs, can be used to provide the bears with a means to use
their skills (eg climbing/swimming) and provide stimulation and exercise
Stimulating the bears' senses, particularly those that are best developed (smell), is an
important form of enrichment. Sensory stimulation can be:
Olfactory (smell), using eg herbs, essential/fragrant oils, spices etc.
Auditory (noise), using eg jungle noises, soft calming music
Tactile (touch), using eg browse, flowers, substrates such as mats
Taste, using food items, spreads, syrups etc.
Visual (sight), using eg elevated platforms, mirrors
The provision of a variety of objects, both nautral and artificial, for the bears to
investigate and play with, helps keep the bears occupied. Natural objects might include
bamboo, logs, tree stumps; artificial objects include toys, kongs, rope, buoys, balls etc.
Feeding enrichment involves using the feeding regime to provide maximum stimulation
for the bears, by eg hiding/scattering food, using random feeding methods, and using
Social enrichment involves grouping compatible animals together
Operant condition, or “training”, involves manipulating how the bears interact with their
keepers, which can act as a form of enrichment and stimulation for both. Using positive
reinforcement (ie rewards), bears can be “trained” to facilitate husbandry procedures (eg
regular weighing) and simple medical examinations.
How do you decide what enrichments to do?
In order to design effective enrichments, we have to understand as much as possible about the
natural biology and behaviour of the species we want to help. Knowledge of the history and
background of the individual animals concerned is also vital.
General features of Asiatic black bears
Asiatic black bears (“moon bears”) are large (adult males weigh 100-200kg, females are generally
smaller), powerful animals with short, strong claws and extremely dextrous paws. They are very
good climbers, and enjoy water. They have an exceptionally good sense of smell; their eyesight and
hearing is less well developed (about the same as ours). They have a crescent-shaped area of cream
coloured fur on their chest, hence the name “moon bear”. They are mostly found in the wet forests
of southern Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, China, and further North in Russia, Korea,
Taiwan, and Japan. They prefer hills and mountainous regions.
Asiatic black bears are usually solitary, but sometimes live in small maternal family groups. They
spend most of the day sleeping and eating in trees, and the night foraging and hunting for food.
They are good swimmers.
Asiatic black bears are omnivores but live on a predominantly vegetarian diet, and spend much of
their time in the wild foraging over large areas for food; their molars are long, broad and flattened,
for crushing and grinding the relatively indigestible vegetable matter that forms most of their diet.
Their diet in the wild changes through the year. Generally Asiatic black bears eat leaves, berries,
bark, bamboo shoots, nuts and fruits. They also eat insects and their larvae, eggs, and occasionally
small mammals, birds, fish, and carrion such as pig and goat.
Spring/early summer: Shrubs and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses,
sedges or rushes) predominate
Summer and early autumn: Fruits predominate
Autumn through winter: acorns and nuts predominate
Asiatic black bears like to sleep in a nest-like structure made usually from bent vegetation. This can
be on the ground or as much as 20m up a tree.
Bears living in cooler parts of their range may become less active in winter, enabling them to
conserve energy when energy-rich foods are in short supply. They build a “den” in a hollow tree or
cave in which they may sleep for up to 5 months. During this time, fat is broken down slowly, and
the need for eating, drinking, defaecating, and urination is reduced. In preparation for this time,
bears must build up a layer of fat through the autumn. In warmer parts of their range, this behaviour
may be less marked, with some bears “slowing down” in the cooler months, and some showing no
signs of reduced activity at all.
Asiatic black bears reach breeding age at 3-4 years. They usually mate in the summer, and produce
their young in the winter (during “hibernation”) or early spring.
In captivity, Asiatic black bears may live to 30 years old.
So what can you do?
Ideally, all captive animals would enjoy lives that are as close to their wild counterparts as possible,
in terms of stimulation and interest. Captive environments can never recreate the variety of
stimulation the bears would enjoy in the wild, but even a few very basic and inexpensive changes
can help make the lives of captive animals better, and improve the experience for the keepers and
The kinds of enrichments you can do may depend on the environment the bears are kept in, and the
history and condition of the particular bears you have. However, wherever possible think about the
main features of the bears when thinking about enrichment:
Omnivorous opportunistic foragers
Well developed sense of smell
and design your enrichments around them.
Here are some ideas:
The most frequently used enrichments are feeding enrichments, because they tend to elicit
cooperation from the bears!
In designing feeding enrichment protocols, remember to use the bears' natural behaviour.
Bears spend a lot of their time foraging in the wild, so rather than feeding them one meal a
day at a set time, vary the feeding times and spread the food through the day and night
Use the omnivorous nature of bears – vary their food through the year to mimic the seasonal
variation seen in the wild and listed above. Use whole and chopped foods, fruits and nuts.
Give them occasional insects, and treats such as honey
Vary the way food is presented. For example, mixtures of pureed fruit, honey, jam, and
crystal fruit flavours can be frozen into ice blocks in clean water, along with chopped fruit,
nuts, seeds or vegetation, by placing them in the freezer in small bowls, then removing the
frozen ice block from the bowl and giving the ice block to the bears. Hide food or treats
such as honey, jam, chopped fruit, nuts and seeds around their enclosure (eg under rocks,
scattered through vegetation, up in trees, or hanging from the roof), and within objects in
their enclosure (eg short lengths of bamboo with holes drilled into them, or wrapped in
leaves or unused cardboard tied together with straw or bamboo fibres), in order to encourage
the bears to spend time searching for their food
Workers at Animals Asia Foundation's China Bear Recue Centre near Chengdu hide feed and scent the trees in one of the bear enclosures, before allowing the bears out.
“Prince” at Animals Asia Foundation's China Bear Rescue Centre near Chengdu enjoys a fruit ice block.
Exhibit design/Physical enrichment:
Bears forage over very large areas in the wild, so provide them with as large and as varied a
habitat as possible
Use their climbing ability – fit vertical wooden logs and wooden frames in the enclosure for
them to climb. If possible, vary the enclosure by moving the climbing materials around
regularly. Provide them with the opportunity to nest build by providing varied and plentiful
bedding materials eg grasses, straw, leaves, banana palms, bamboo, bark, and wood
Provide large pools, digging pits, and mud wallows. Even shallow paddling pools are good.
Make sure the water in the pools can be changed regularly
“Emma” at Animals Asia Foundation's China Bear Rescue Centre near Chengdu, on a climbing
Make use of the bears' acute sense of smell, by setting scent trails, or scenting the bedding
material, using fruit/food juices, jams, honey and scented plants. Use different materials at
different times to keep the bears interested, for example scented straw
Provide the bears with a changing variety of natural and artificial novel objects to
investigate eg wood piles, swinging tyres (tied with rope, not chains), plastic barrels,
boomer balls, ropes etc.
When using such items, always consider the safety of the bears – only use non-steel belt
tyres, natural fibre rope, don't create a “noose” in which a bear could become trapped, and
don't tie knots along the length of ropes. Never offer small plastic or rubber items on which
a bear could choke, and never use polystyrene or foam objects, or objects containing wire or
Bears are not naturally social, however they can live in groups, and if carefully managed,
group living can provide great social enrichment for bears. Mixing bears together requires
specialised skills and a detailed knowledge of the characters of the bears concerned, and
Never house Asiatic black bears with other species of bear or other animals
Training can be enriching, and generally involves teaching the bears to come over to the
keepers when called, enter their dens in response to a signal (eg a bell), and sometimes to
stand for topical treatments such as eye drops or examinations of their eyes and feet.
Training requires specialist skills and knowledge and can be dangerous; never put the bear,
the keepers, or the public at risk, always seek specialist advice before embarking on a
NEVER teach bears or other animals to perform “tricks” to “entertain” the public – in doing
so, you humiliate the bears, you humiliate yourself, and you reduce the educational value of
the bears to the general public. Remember, there is good scientific evidence that the public
respond better and learn more when they see animals displaying their NORMAL behaviour,
rather than animals simply performing “tricks” that they have been taught
Never allow the public to feed bears.
An intergrated group of bears at Animals Asia Foundation's China Bear Rescue Centre near Chengdu enjoy a variety of enrichments, including socialisation, climbing frames, and foraging materials.
With a little creativity and initiative, the bears can benefit from an enrichment programme, the
keepers will develop a stronger bond with the bears, and the public will enjoy observing the bears
behaving more like they do in the wild.
Remember, Animals Asia Foundation has a great deal of experience designing enrichment protocols
for Asiatic black bears, and many wildlife centres and zoos which keep bears also use enrichment
protocols. So if you need more help, ask! While the details given here have been devised with
Asiatic black bears in mind, the principles apply to other species of bear, and indeed other species
of animal; you just need to think about the specific characteristics and requirements of the animal(s)
concerned, and design your enrichment programme around them.
Mark Jones, BVSc MSc(Stir) MSc(London) MCVS
Animals Asia Foundation
Davey,G.; Henzi, P.; Higgins, L. (2005) The influence of environmental enrichment on Chinese
visitor behavior. J.Appl.An.Welf.Sci. 8(2), 131-140.