White Bear

Sheng-Wen Lo

2014 - Ongoing

"White Bear" depicts polar bears in captivity and their artificial habitats globally; it also attempts to shed light on issues concerning captive animals-exhibits. Currently, the project was executed in 26 sites across Europe and China.

"White Bear" is not about polar bears — it studies the visible symptoms amid animals on display and their artificial habitats by focusing on one specific species. These habitats are designed to satisfy both the spectators (audience) and the dwellers (animals). In other words, with their effort to mimic the arctic environment, the uncanny structures combined “nature”, "home" and “stage”. Juxtaposed with man-made backgrounds, the enclosures and their furry protagonists formed visions filled with contrasting elements — grasslands, plateaus, swimming pools, car tires, fake seals, stone stairs, painted icebergs, yachts, airplanes, and even skyscrapers. Under limited space and resources, there are various issues lurking beneath their surfaces.

Due to climate change and the resulting habitat loss, it may sounds reasonable to keep and nourish vulnerable species in controlled environments; however, for certain species, reintroduction is not trivial. In fact, according to EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), there has never been any possible reintroduction program for polar bears due to the diminishing habitats.

Maintaining the welfare of zoo animals is an intricate task that juggles the constraints of expense and enclosure sizes — a delicate balance that may easily be disrupted. The existence of white bears in exhibits portrays the ambiguity of modern zoos. Almost always promoted as exotic tourist-magnets, the bears are often the singularity points at which contemporary justifications of zoos falls into question — the mission of conservation, research and education seem challenged by the interest of entertainment.

Photograph dimensions: 110cm(H) x 138cm(W)


Video: The March of the Great White Bear (3'29")

Stereotypical behaviour (neurotic repetitive motion) are common among captive polar bears; they are recorded in videos "The March of the Great White Bear": www.shengwenlo.com/video

Project consultants:

*Tzu-Yun Teng/ PhD Candidate, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney

*I-lly Cheng/ Composer-Live Electronics, Conservatorium van Amsterdam

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  • These videos are not looped: they are based on the "behavioural stereotypy (repetitive, seemingly functionless behaviours)" of polar bears in captivity.
    Ethological studies have shown that stereotypical behaviours stem from limited captive environments that do not satisfy the animals' normal behavioural needs. It is also seen as a sign of psychological distress in animals.

  • Dalian Forest Park, China (2015)
    Car tire were provided, as a common enrichment in China sites.

  • Hagenbeck - Tierpark, Deutschland (2014)
    The stones (possibly made from glass fibre) are hollow inside to held the educational walkway structure.

  • Wuppertal Zoo, Deutschland (2014)
    In the foreground is a sea-lion-shaped float board. However, the bears nowadays were born in captivity. They should not have known what a sea lion is. Nor have they seen real icebergs.

  • Nanjing Underwater World, China (2015)
    The only site which people can pay and feed the white bear (for 3 euros). The session lasted all day even when the bear had no desire to eat.

  • Monde Sauvage", Aywaille, Belgium (2014)

  • Diergaarde Blijdorp (Rotterdam Zoo), Netherlands (2016)
    Sizzel and Todz b. 2014, 2. Dec. Father Erik deceased in Feb. 2015.

  • WILDLANDS Adventure Zoo Emmen, Netherlands (2016)
    Lale (right, b. 2013) is older than her aunt and uncle Sizzel and Todz (b.2014) in Rotterdam.

  • Aquazoo Friesland, Netherlands (2016)

  • Dalian Forest Park, China (2015)

  • Zoo Praha, Czech Republic (2014)

  • Zoo Berlin, Deutschland (2014)
    Two of the bears in this picture, Nancy and Tosca, deceased after my visit in 2014.

  • Xi'an Qujian Polar Ocean Park, China (2015)
    In China, polar bears are mostly kept indoors. In this case the park is located on Loess Plateau (yellow earth plateau). According to the park, the enclosure was designed with Loess Plateau aesthetics to satisfy the imagination of local people.

  • Wuhan Haichang Polar Ocean World, China (2015)
    The two bears of Haichang Group are not real polar bears, they are a mix-breed of brown of white bears. The park labeled them as polar bears.

  • Beijing Zoo, China (2015)
    A roadway passes on top of the enclosure; it was capsulated to shield traffic noise.

  • Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig, Scotland (2014)
    One of the rare cases located near the arctic circle, where artificial infrastructures are not required for the bears.

  • Exhibition view: Lianzhou Foto Festival, China, 2016

  • Documents: Flyers and maps, Europe

  • Documents: Flyers and maps, China

  • Map of Polar Bears in Captivity (2014)
    Red pins are sites visited. As of july, 2014, there are 291 polar bears living in full captivity on Earth. View in Google Map Engine: https://goo.gl/dhiHRr