On Saturday, August 20, team Bear Necessity Korea made its way to the much anticipated Bear tree Park, located in Chungchondong, a 90 minute train ride or 90 minute drive from Seoul. Bear Tree Park is open year round and closes at sunset. This was our 3rd trip, and the second ‘Summer’ visit. We traveled by bus.
Our objective is the documentation of bear care, facility maintenance, and to observe any changes in the quality of bear care.
Our team was comprised of 15 volunteers. The weather was warm and cloudy with light rain. To view our 2011 winter report, click here.
Team members filled out surveys and took notes of observations and overall impressions.
We estimate that 100-150 bears reside in Korea’s Bear Tree Park.
The owners, who are former bear bile farmers, have invested an enormous amount of money in making the facility beautiful; resplendent with lush, Japanese style gardens and pavilions.
Upon our arrival, we noted that a second boutique had been opened at the park entrance, called “Bear Museum”. However, the name
was misleading; Bear Museum is a merchandise outlet filled with teddy bears and stationary.
As usual, the scenic atmosphere didn’t disappoint, though we focussed on making our way to the bear-inhabited regions of the park.
Approximately 1 hour into our visit, we found The Bear Village and surrounding Pet Area. Consistent with last year’s findings, the lack
of enrichment and adherence to ethical guidelines (as prescribed by doctrines written by established groups such as Animals Asia and The World Association for Zoos and Aquariums – WAZA), was disconcerting. In fact, the conditions under which the bear lived were painfully similar to those under which they’d exist in a Korean bear bile farm, though it appears the intentions are generally good. In our opinion, it is unlikely the owners possess the expertise necessary to provide ethical care for their bears at present. This remains unknown. One noted change was a large ‘swing’ in one of the large pens and a hanging tire on a rope. Bears are complex and highly intelligent animals; unlike a domesticated animal, bears require distinct psychological stimulation and the freedom to choose to hibernate, hide, play, etc. Without such enrichment, depression can occur, leading to self harm, illness, and deterioration.
We were in agreement with a report we received in July 2009, which addressed the Facility conditions, though we noted a few improvements in hygiene, an increase in signage, and several changes in commercial ‘gimmicks’. One significant change is the provision of carrots for feeding. This explained the increase in begging behavior witnessed by the team. Feeding captive wild animals is degrading to both the animal and the human involved, and is frowned upon by international governing bodies in zoo regulation.
Consistent with the findings by our associates, roughly 40 bears are still confined in the 2 main, cramped farm cages which compounds are situated in a row in the middle of the park. This area is obscurely labelled on the site map and there are no signs at all explaining the bears’ presence, and none suggesting the bears’ housing conditions will be improved. There were, however, Signs that assigned human traits to individual bears, further personifying the animals and re-enforcing the message that the bears are “for the entertainment and amusement of humans”.
Behind the main viewing pens are rows of dome shaped cages. The cages, each a few meters square, are surrounded by high banks of vegetation. The sleeping compartments provide an area where the bears can partially retreat from human eyes, but contain no bedding material to mimic a natural setting. Cages are numbered, and it was apparent that the park is making an effort to draw attention away from these grimier, less attractive dwellings. Several bears could be seen pacing back and forth, engaging in repetitive behavior and clearly distressed. The facility, newly named “Bear’s Childbirth House” is clearly meant to be “as concealed as possible”. This facility is likely a remnant of the park’s bear bile farming days.
In the 2009 report, it was found that several bears, many of whom have yellow ear tags, paced the tiny areas and several more were bar-biting; an indication of stress. The only ‘enrichment’ opportunity appears to be that some of the cages open onto each other, so some bears are free to mix. However, this also leads to fighting and constant breeding in the confined spaces. Several confrontations were observed during our visit.
A short distance from the cages is Bears Village, which houses roughly 100 bears. This area is closely modeled on Japanese bear parks and consists of four different-sized sunken concrete pits, each roughly 10 by 20, 30 or 40 meters in size.
The floors and walls of the pits are bare concrete and each contain one or two piles of rocks, small concrete pools filled with scummy brown water, giant metal ‘hamster wheels’, metal climbing frames, metal ‘trees’ and platforms. Shade is at a minimum – many bears cram themselves into the shadows of the high walls or rocks, which diminish with the movement of the sun or rain. Small parasols, which appeared to serve decorative purposes, were present in the pen. No fresh drinking water was provided for the bears other than the dirty brown pools. The pits have small arched doors in the walls, which were all shut at the time of our visit, but presumably lead to underground sleeping quarters.
Although the walls appeared to have cavernous interiors blocked by potentially leveraged bars, we were unable to see inside to determine whether any bedding was provided, perhaps for the hours after sunset during which the farm is closed. There was no provision of areas where the bears can retreat from human eyes or each other. Despite being an improvement on the cages, the pits are greatly overstocked with roughly 20-40 bears in each – leaving only a few square meters of space per bear. This obviously could lead to a unavoidably large quantity of feces being produced in a small space.
The floors of the pits were dotted with piles of soft, putty-coloured excrement which indicates that the bears’ diet is entirely unsuitable. In the wild, bears are omnivorous and consume a variety of foods including berries, roots and shoots, insects and occasionally, carrion. Overall, there is nothing to suggest that they are receiving sufficient fibre and their protein and vitamin requirements are almost certainly at marginal levels.
We observed an abundance of new, very young cubs, approximately 15 in total. The cubs were provided more spacious housing and appeared animated, eager to beg, and their housing allowed onlookers to lean in quite close to them. Signage was present warning visitors to refrain from making noise, but many visitors pounded loudly on the glass enclosure to get the cub’s attention. No staff were present to stop this behavior. Wild bear cubs stay with their mothers for up to two years, so to be separated at this early age is unnatural, despite the fact that these bears will likely spend their lives in captivity.
The cub’s enclosure had bare concrete floors and there were new dome-shaped shelters built, though few in number and inadequate. There was no provision of bedding. There were also metal climbing frames and smooth tree branches, stripped bare of their bark, which the cubs climbed enthusiastically to get attention from us, clearly inquisitive. There was fresh water provided in the form of a small, shallow trough filled by a dripping tap and the cubs climbed over each other to sit in this cool water, but there was only space for one small bottom at a time.
Near the entrance to the park is an area called Pet Garden, which consists of a collection of small bare enclosures and aviaries housing domestic animals such as sheep, peacocks, chickens, deer etc. We noted that new species had been added: beagles, tropical birds—some of which were apparently ‘for sale’. Occasionally, we saw a free wandering peacock or fowl that had apparently escaped or had been intentionally allowed to wander, but no staff were present throughout the duration of our visit save for those in the dining facility and craft/souvenir shops.
We noted a lack of educational materials or informative signs surrounding any of the enclosures. Ironically, the sign for Bear Tree Park
and wall mosaics depict the bears against a spacious natural green forest backdrop – though the bears in the park have no access to such habitats themselves, and there are no signs to suggest such improvements are planned. In the sculpture areas, the bear statues had significantly more space and better landscaping than the live bears themselves. One interesting change involved the use of signage which erroneously explained the ‘pecking order’ and behavior of the bears in cute, humorous fashion. We observed one educationally
relevant sign, which named the species and provided a brief description. Other signage personalized the animals; describing habits and ‘personality quirks’.
In its current state, Bear Tree Park fails to meet the needs of all its captive bears, though certainly some more than others, and gives the public a negative educational message about animals in general.
The South East Asian Zoo Association (of which Seoul zoo is a member) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Codes of ethics provide basic standards on exhibiting animals to the public, including allowing them to express natural behavior,
allowing animals sufficient space, allowing animals to withdraw from view and contact with people, and displaying them in a natural enclosure. Bear Tree Park fails on all these criteria.
SUMMARY of CHANGES (since 2010 trip)
-increase in commercial signage
-increase in the variety of species
-new cubs and admission of breeding
-Sign labeling a ‘breeding house”
-Sales of food for bears (carrots)
-implementation of some enrichment (swing, tires)
“My feelings are conflicted. I feel sad for these bears because they are clearly lacking adequate space, Their enclosures are lacking in a lot of necessary things. However, knowing how bad life can be in a bile farm, I can’t help but think this is better. Overall, my impression of the quality of care is that the park didn’t do their research. They are fed, watered, and have places to climb. The basics are met. They are physically sustained. However, it saddens me that so much effort was put into maintaining the gardens while so little is being done to enrich the lives of the bears. It doesn’t appear malicious, but it is ignorant.
“I could literally pick up a cub and run away with it and no one would notice.”
“I think this place is extremely depressing. Peeling away the layers of deception, it is visible that the animals are suffering and the park does not care for the animals well being.”
“Bears were not the focus of the park. They acted a a side show to be stared at. There is little effort out into providing welfare or educational value.”
“At least it is better than a bile farm…not much better, but better.”
“The only staff I saw was selling food.”
Bear Tree Park is an indisputably unique and beautiful property in Korea. In our opinion, it has enormous potential as an ethical location for bears, should the owners take interest in implementing changes to uphold WAZA standards, or those of a sanctuary – an even tougher challenge, as sanctuaries mimic natural settings and Korea’s farm bears tend to have significant health issues).
The gardens and greenhouses are inarguably ’tranquil and exotic’, and the meticulously cared for sculptures and artwork kept us enthralled. We hope that one day, this park may become something more than a glorified bear farm; stocked with pretty plants, flashy merchandise and cheap theatrical tricks and generating income but failing to provide the care these animals deserve.
Bear Necessity Korea is pursing precisely this; and your support is invaluable to us. Our hope is change; the owners of Bear Tree Park have the opportunity to become pioneers in Korea and to prove that Care and quality truly do come before consumerism.
Special thanks to Belynda Azhaar for photography. Video files coming soon!
Special thanks to Craftworks Bistro and Taphouse for helping fund the trip!