Architecture cannot mimic drastically different environments in a practical way, and this is illustrated through the treatment of various captive animals and their enclosures. Megafauna such as polar bears are housed in subpar conditions as these unique species are the ‘exhibits’ the public wants to see the most, despite architecture being unable to provide an adequate habitat.
PGAV’s ‘Polar Bear Point’ (2013), attempts to humanely exhibit polar bears to the public at the Saint Louis Zoo through mimicking their native habitat. To pay homage to the bears’ native environment, PGAV imitates the glaciers of the Arctic with large carved rocks jutting out of the ground in an abstract fashion.
The exhibit ‘transitions seamlessly from sea to coastline to land,’ (Saint Louis Zoo), enabling the polar bears to be stimulated in various ways by rotating through the different ‘zones’ of the enclosure. The bears can swim in the ‘sea’ and dig along the ‘coast,’ thus using their natural instincts in an unnatural environment.
Despite PGAV’s efforts to display the animals compassionately ‘Polar Bear Point’ has failed the bears, due to being unable to match the cold Arctic weather. The average temperature in Saint Louis is 27 degrees Celsius in the warmer months, and 0 degrees in the cooler periods (St Louis Post-Dispatch, 2021). Saint Louis is not a particularly warm city, however, these temperatures are far higher than what the polar bear is acclimated to in its native habitat, where the annual average temperature is -3 degrees (Climate Data). Architecture will never be able to mimic these temperatures, despite the thoughtful reference to glaciers and the Arctic.
Polar bears’ highly evolved sense of smell means they can sniff out their prey from more than one kilometre away and through one metre of snow. (Weyman-Jones, 2021) Patiently, they stalk their pray, lying low until they can strike at close range. In captivity, polar bears are denied the opportunity to engage in this instinctual behaviour. To capitalise on the attraction of megafauna, ‘Polar Bear Point’ has expansive viewing areas throughout the enclosure. (Saint Louis Zoo). Despite the design of varying environments for the bears, the requirement of the animals to be displayed at all times goes against their natural instincts to hide while stalking their pray.
Architecture has failed these polar bears resulting in a decline in cognitive function and suffering for the animals involved. Captive polar bears display peculiar behaviours such as pacing and swimming in repetitive patterns (Weyman-Jones, 2021) both used as coping mechanisms. Laurel Braitman noted that pharmaceuticals had been prescribed to alleviate these behaviours, many bears being prescribed Prozac, an anti-depressant (Braitman, 2015).
However, the public is not without blame: if there was not an expectation for the bears to be displayed at all times, would they be less despondent? ‘Polar Bear Point,’ is not alone in its’ exhibition of animals, and this realisation highlights the overarching problem of zoos: the widespread perception that the public’s interests override the innate needs of the animals displayed. Architecture is not solely to blame for the decline of the polar bears’ health, however, even if improvements to the exhibit and public expectations of a zoo were to be made, the overarching result is that architecture will always fail these animals.
Image One: “Creating a Polar Bear Habitat in the Midwest.” 2014. https://alberici.com/projects/saint-louis-zoo-facility-master-plan/
Image Two: “Bear Beach.” 2017. https://www.pitstopsforkids.com/free-st-louis-zoo/
Image Three: “Kali.” https://www.stlzoo.org/visit/thingstoseeanddo/thewild/mcdonnell-polar-bear-point
Image Four: “The Great St Louis Zoo- Polar Bear Exhibit.” 2014. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/fd/47/eb/fd47eb453e6c13f8d8ae7f1074dd465e.jpg
Image Five: “A Polar Bear Swims in his Enclosure.” 2014. https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/polar-bear-point-construction-to-start-tuesday-at-st-louis-zoo/article_5fc964a7-9dd4-59d4-a8d1-e4f43c1df3e5.html
Braitman, Laurel. Animal Madness: Inside Their Madness. Simon & Schuster, 2015
Climate Data. “North Pole Climate.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://en.climate-data.org/north-america/united-states-of-america/alaska/north-pole-15898/
Saint Louis Zoo. “McDonnell Polar Bear Point.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://www.stlzoo.org/visit/thingstoseeanddo/thewild/mcdonnell-polar-bear-point
St Louis Post-Dispatch. “Just like it felt, July was the hottest month on record in St. Louis.” Published August 2, 2012. https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/just-like-it-felt-july-was-hottest-month-on-record/article_5462b7b2-ade8-5004-bdc4-d3e477242be2.html
Weyman-Jones, Laura. “5 Reasons Why Polar Bears Do Not Belong in Australia.” Published February 10, 2021. https://www.peta.org.au/news/5-reasons-why-polar-bears-do-not-belong-in-australia/
Worland, Justin. “The Future of Zoos: Challenges Force Zoos to Change in Big Ways.” Published February 16, 2017. https://time.com/4672990/the-future-of-zoos/