A visit to the zoo wouldn’t be complete without a stop by the polar bear enclosure. Seeing the majestic creatures padding about and docilely swimming up to kids as they peer through the glass may seem like a wonderful experience for a paying guest – yet these behaviors go against everything polar bears are programmed to do. Social isolation, boredom, and living in an enclosure that’s a fraction of what their normal habitat range would be in the Arctic causes bears and other captive animals to quite literally become mentally ill. So prescribing antidepressants and other medications to zoo animals has become a common practice. One that some zoos don’t want the public to know about.

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The term is “zoochosis,” or psychosis caused by confinement, can manifest itself in a variety of ways for captive animals. Stereotypic, or unusual and repetitive, movements such as pacing, rocking, over-grooming, and even self-mutilating are all behaviors seen in animals who are torn from their natural environments and denied their natural instincts. Sometimes zoos employ “enrichment programs” to stave off boredom, such as giving them food which takes longer to eat and toys to play with, yet many zoos end up switching to using medication to keep animals calm and docile so that the customers can be entertained.

Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, told Slate in an interview, “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried” and “they are a hell of a lot less expensive than re-doing your $2 million exhibit or getting rid of that problem creature.” For some animals, not even medication can help. Gus, a polar bear in Central Park Zoo who had only 5,000 square feet to roam in, was euthanized in 2013.

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Related: Photo of frail polar bear illuminates the tragedy unfolding in the Arctic

Just like in humans, treatment of mental illness symptoms requires an integrated approach. Medications can be a part of that solution, yet finding ways to improve one’s environment and coping skills is key. For captive animals, it is an uphill battle because their environment was taken away and their coping potential is severely limited – especially when considering the disruption of their social structure. If supporting zoos is something you no longer wish to do, visiting or donating to reputable wild animal sanctuaries or conservation groups are wonderful alternatives.

Via One Green Planet

Images via Shutterstock (1,2), Wikimedia