Tongki Wants a Better Life

A “polar bear” swimming in the Han River, Seoul.

A polar bear jumped into the Han River at Yeouinaru, Seoul, on July 28th, 2017. It was a performance to highlight the suffering of Tongki, a polar bear who was born in captivity and has lived in a small enclosure in the zoo at Everland for over 20 years.

Congresswoman Jeong-ae Han attended and made a speech comparing Tongki’s environment to other polar bear enclosures around the world, and demanding improvements to Tongki’s living conditions.

On July 11th, 2017 we had visited Everland in order to investigate. The information board for Tongki had been removed and the enclosure was sealed from public view with canvas tied over the bars. Nobody could see that there was a polar bear inside. Everland explained that Tongki didn’t want to come outside because of the hot weather, and that’s why they stopped displaying him to the public.

One of the zookeepers told us, “The door connecting indoors and outdoors is now open so that Tongki can walk around. The water in the pool is full to let Tongki swim as much as he wants.”

The reality, however, was completely different. Tongki was without any water in the scorching heat. He was trying to put his head and paw into a bowl of stagnant water. The whole time we were there, he was outside trying to find cool water and shade. We asked Everland to show us the indoor area of his enclosure, but they refused. The marine thermometer showed 11°C without any water, which was nonsense.

On July 14th, we re-visited Everland. There was an ankle-high level of water in the pool, but that is not enough for a polar bear. It was 34°C on that day. Everland said “It takes 8 hours to fill the pool fully with water.” By saying this, they indirectly stated that they didn’t think it was necessary to put water in Tongki’s pool during the daytime.

Congresswoman Jeong-ae Han (center) with members of the CARE campaign team.

Polar bears’ natural habitat is arctic marine, an environment to which they are supremely adapted, making captivity in hot and humid climates especially stressful for them. They can also range over an area of 150,000km2, which makes captivity in even a huge enclosure inappropriate.

According to the Polar Bear Protection Act of Manitoba, Canada, the living area should be at least 500m2 per bear and a quarter of that area should be covered with soil, hay, and bark. It also suggests to provide a ‘day bed’ where polar bears can spend time during the day, soft ground which is not concrete, a low indoor temperature, and cool water in the pool.

For these reasons, many zoos and wildlife parks in other countries—Leipzig Zoo in Germany, British Zoos and Swiss Zoos—are stopping, or have stopped, displaying polar bears.

Dr. Samantha Lindley, a veterinarian and expert in the welfare of captive animals at the University of Glasgow, UK, says this about polar bears in captivity in tropical and sub-tropical climates:

Temperature regulation places a huge stress on these animals…Many polar bear enclosures become sun traps in the summer, and water facilities are often poor. Tropical facilities are totally unsuitable for polar bears. The chances of artificially maintained environments breaking down are too high and the need for greater restriction of the bears renders such a destination a potential disaster in welfare terms.

“Polar bear Tongki wants to live!”

Putting aside the other inadequacies of his enclosure, Everland did not even provide Tongki with water to cool off, a fundamental need for an animal adapted to arctic temperatures. This is cruel animal abuse. Wet matting, frozen food, and motion activated cold showers would be simple and cheap methods of relieving Tongki’s stress.

We demand that Everland take immediate action to improve the living environment for Tongki.

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