The future of zoos?
We pay a visit to the Wild Place Project on the outskirts of Bristol
When Wild Place Project first started releasing information about Bear Wood, some people got the wrong end of the stick and thought they were rewilding. “We’d get phone calls saying, ‘What do mean you’re going to be putting bears up here? What about my dog?’” says animal manager Will Walker.
Bear Wood has been described as the largest and most ambitious brown bear exhibit in the UK. It includes bears and wolves inhabiting sections of a 30,000m² ancient woodland within the grounds of Wild Place Project, run by Bristol Zoological Society.
The plan for an attraction in Blackhorse Wood at Bristol Zoo’s sister site was put together 15 years ago, but the zoo really started working on the finer details 24 months ago. As a European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) member, it contacted the relevant studbook keepers for the species it wanted to introduce to the woodland to get their input.
“Fortunately, the co-ordinator of bears, José Kok, has kept
wolves and bears together for 25 years at Ouwehands Dierenpark, the Netherlands,” says Will. “She knows through hands-on experience what works and what doesn’t, so I was able to get a lot of information.” Will joined a specialist bear group at EAZA that works with the co-ordinators of all eight species of bears, to discuss best practice: “When José was happy with what we were going to be doing, we made some changes and came up with a strategy for building this exhibit. “We knew we wanted to create a woodland experience. A lot of places don’t necessarily do that, but we’re lucky that we’ve got an ancient woodland in the middle of the zoo that we can fence in. By giving the animals a woodland to live in, it’s more enriching.” While on the 700m elevated walkway that runs throughout the exhibit, Will points out a 10m-high oak tree: “I’ve seen our younger bears at the top – they’re able to climb like they would in the wild. Because everything in the exhibit is really natural, it gives the animals so much to do, like hollowing out in an old ditch.”
I watch a male European brown bear emerge from dense foliage and start walking along a fallen tree. He’s 2.5 years old and weighs about 180kg, but will eventually reach 350kg. Before long, he is joined by another male that browses while on his hind legs.
These individuals share this woodland space with two other bears, a male and a female that are 1.5 years old. In the future, five Eurasian grey wolves, which have been at Wild Place Project since it opened in 2013, will join the bears in the same enclosure. Other new residents of Bear Wood also include two Eurasian lynx that are three to four years old and two wolverines that are one to two years old. However, the lynx and wolverines will remain in separate enclosures.
“Not everything is mixed together,” says Will. “You don’t mix wolverine and lynx with wolves, because generally they’re
“Bears and wolves get on fine – they don’t compete for the same food and respect each other.”
quite small animals and wolves may see them as something to predate. Wolves and bears though, they mix really quite well together – it’s been done in lots of zoos in Europe and in America, too.” While black bears and wolves have been housed together in the UK, it’s never been done with brown bears, which are much bigger. “But we know they get on fine because they don’t compete for the same food and [they] respect each other,” says Will. “Bears are way too big for a wolf to even think about.” According to EAZA guidelines, the minimum space required is 300m² per bear, though the organisation encourages zoos to have a sizeable enclosure. In Bear Wood, the bears and wolves inhabit a 12,000m² area, the wolverines, 3,000m², and the lynx, 2,000m². “This is the largest brown bear exhibit in the UK by a country mile – well over double the size of any
others. We’ve made sure that we’ve gone way past the guidelines,” says Will.
In the wild, bear home ranges and wolf territories tend to vary from between 100km² to over 1,000km² in Europe, with the bigger ranges in the north, according to John Linnell, senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. “Male bears range much more than female bears and wolves tend to have shared territories,” he says.
According to David Garshelis, chair of the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group. “Bear and wolf home ranges overlap to a large degree and are often recorded on the same trail cameras. Wolf presence could benefit bears through kleptoparasitism (bears are unable to kill large ungulates but may usurp wolf kills) and there may be occasional (rare) cases of predation of one species on the other.” Despite the fact bears and wolves will live together at Bear Wood, they won’t have to share their food: “When we’re
feeding the wolves, we can enclose them in a separate area from the bears, so if we want to give them a big carcass feed and we think the bears may try and steal it, we can do that in an area the bears can’t get in to,” says Will.
“We provide them with different food – if we’re feeding berries, fruit and vegetables to the bears, the wolves aren’t going to bother with it.
“We are confident that our brown bears and wolves will mix well, however, it is important not to rush the introduction.”
“This style is definitely the future of zoos. I think it has to be,” he exclaims. “It’s not all about the size of the exhibit, it’s also about the complexity of the exhibit – to ensure the animals are getting everything that they need, from enrichment to stimulation. “Seeing our bears in here is the right way to see them in captivity. This is how large, intelligent animals should be kept – in the best possible exhibit that we can provide. We really feel like we’ve done that here.” There are plans to breed wolverine at Wild Place Project, to get new genetics and bloodlines into the European population. The zoo also has a breeding recommendation for lynx. But bears and wolves will not be bred here because their numbers in the wild are increasing and there are already a lot of them in captivity with managed breeding programmes in place.
“Many bears that are rehomed in European zoos are cubs that have been orphaned due to hunting and can’t be released back into the wild. The bear breeding programme prioritises finding space for these individuals over lots of zoos breeding them, which is how we keep the population up in captivity,” says Will.
The aim of this multi-million-pound exhibit is to tell the story of native species that have been lost to the UK countryside and to inspire visitors to protect the woodland and wildlife that we have left – only two per cent of the country is covered by ancient woodland today.
Upon entering a ‘time chamber’ at the entrance, several dials spin and whirr, rewinding the clock to 8,000BCE, when
“It’s not all about the size of the exhibit, it’s also about the complexity.”
the UK was absolutely covered in woodland, when bears and wolves coexisted. “It’s very different to what anyone has done before,” says Will. “You can really immerse yourself in the whole area.”
Even before it opened, Bear Wood was sparking conversations about rewilding, but Will insists this isn’t the message, despite many people asking about it: “Personally, I’d love to see these animals roaming the British countryside again, but I don’t think bears are ever going to get there,” he says. “Bear Wood is about woodland loss and what we can do in the future to increase woodland areas, protect what we have and the animals that inhabit it.”
Life among the trees
The Woodland Trust visited Blackhorse Wood to review the proposal. Adam Cormack, head of campaigning for the charity, says: “An ancient woodland site is not an appropriate location for an exhibit like this. While we applaud the idea of raising awareness of lost species, Blackhorse Wood is hundreds of years old and an exhibit lamenting the loss of ancient woodland, should not in turn damage that very same habitat.
“A small woodland does not provide the conditions to mimic the natural ranging distances and population densities of these species. As well as fencing the woodland, introducing infrastructure and large captive carnivores will have negative consequences for the existing wildlife in the woodland.”
Dr Christoph Schwitzer, chief zoological officer at Bristol Zoological Society, says: “Bear Wood has been carefully designed to ensure minimal environmental impact on the ancient woodland that it is part of. Our native species conservation team is continuously monitoring the presence and densities of a number of native animal and
plant species, both inside and outside the animal exhibits, and feeds the results back into our woodland management plan.”
As I make my way through the exhibit, a ranger points out three cavities in a tree made by great spotted woodpeckers. The native species work carried out on the Wild Place Project site includes surveying areas within Bear Wood to find out how the introduction of larger mammals impacts on the woodland’s fauna and flora.
“We want to connect people with nature and do something that is a little bit different,” says Will. “Yes, we want animals here, but we also want to concentrate on what’s on our doorstep and celebrate what we have in the UK. We won’t develop the rest of the woods into animal exhibits, because we want to ensure we keep areas just for wild species.”
When Bristol Zoological Society decided to open Wild Place Project, it wanted it to offer a different visitor experience to Bristol Zoo Gardens, which is a historic and traditional city zoo. “People have changed how they want to see animals in captivity,” says Will. “Once upon time, we kept things in very small enclosures and zoos have had to change their ways.”
He tells me that because Wild Place Project has 140 acres to play with, it can keep a collection of large animals that need a lot of room: “You have to tailor your collection to the space that you’ve got. There is no point in us trying to recreate the nocturnal houses and reptile houses here, because at Bristol Zoo they do that so well.”
Project with a purpose
“Bear Wood is the same size as all of the animal areas at Bristol Zoo put together, but it’s just for four species here,” he says. “Also, what’s really good about this site, and the whole ethos of Wild Place Project, is that every exhibit that we build links to in-situ conservation.” For example, the Bénoué National Park exhibit is linked to a project in Cameroon, run by the Bristol Zoological Society’s conservation team: “It’s not just about bringing in giraffes because we knew people like giraffes. We brought in giraffes because we were going to work with giraffes in the wild.
“It’s brilliant to feel like you’re not just keeping animals because we want people to have a good day out,” Will says. "Of course we do want people to have a good day out, but visitors coming here can see what we’re doing, help fund the work that we’re doing in the wild, and really make a difference to wildlife around the world, which is fantastic and is the reason why I’m here.
“In 20 years’ time, we hope to have a collection that is a lot bigger than what we currently have now, but we never want to lose the core philosophy that we started with at this site – getting people involved and connected to nature, because it is at the heart of what we do.”
“We want to connect people with nature and do something that is a little bit different.”
Extinct in the UK, brown bears can now be found at Wild Place Project, where rangers teach the public about our lost woodland inhabitants (
Left: young bears spend time climbing trees. Above: in the ‘time chamber’. Right: a ranger teaches visitors about the woodland’s native wildlife. Bottom left: a seven-year-old wolf stretches.
Ancient trees form a key part of our landscape. Wild Place Project plans to breed from Alice, a wolverine brought from a zoo in Siberia.
Above: Eurasian lynx are solitary creatures that favour dense wooded habitats. Below: nestboxes are monitored by the zoo’s native species team.