There’s seldom a sight that’s more sad to be found
Than a bored polar bear walking round and around:
In the ice of the Arctic, the most fearsome sight,
In the mud of a summer it’s not even white.
A hunter whose power’s respected by all,
Is trapped in a pen with a pond and a ball.
This mightiest hunter in mild summer’s rain
On an iceberg of concrete, going slowly insane.
I’m sure that zoos are not like this now, but many, many years ago, as a child, I was taken to one – long since closed down – and traipsed around the tiny cages full of magnificent creatures with nothing close to enough space and nothing with which to pass the time. Most of them simply paced backwards and forwards, giving every impression that they were fully aware that, in these conditions, life for them would be mercifully short. I was very young and my eyes were not open to these horrors until I approached a pen which contained a single polar bear. The bear in the picture on the wall was a magnificent beast; a pure white knot of muscle and teeth – the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore – power and savage beauty perfectly aligned. The bear in the compound – a concrete hollow, clearly designed to hold a large amount of water, but containing little more than a bathful at the base of its deepest point, upon which bobbed something that looked suspiciously like a child’s beachball – was thin to the point of emaciation with the yellow/light brown fur that I now know comes with age. From the base of the basin that was clearly intended to be filled with water rose a concrete iceberg to which the animal was clearly expected to swim in order to rest. Unfortunately with the pool drained of water the bear, as tall as he was, would have needed ropes and crampons to reach it. So, head bowed, it just walked round and around its base. Round and around, round and around, round and around… it was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen and I’m not certain that I have ever fully gotten over it. I understand that polar bears are one of the few creatures that will actively hunt a human – I can’t say that I blame them…