In the western hemisphere, polar bears have lived in our midst since the Middle Ages, a result of our fascination with these charismatic carnivores. Already in 1252, Henry III of England kept a muzzled and chained polar bear there, which was allowed to catch fish and frolic about in the Thames. The first unequivocally identifiable polar bears came to Europe by way of Greenlandic Norse traders and from Iceland, where sea currents still sometimes maroon them. Viking entrepreneurs distributed them to royalty throughout Europe, who kept them in ostentatious menageries or passed them on as gifts to grease diplomatic gears and careers.
With new developments shaping science and philosophy at the turn of the eighteenth century, as well as a burgeoning middle class and expeditions to the Americas, Asia, and Africa, animal collections in Europe—until then largely a privilege of nobility—opened their gates to the public. As in the medieval menageries, polar bears drew a good deal of attention. Beginning in 1693, the first King of Prussia, Frederick I, kept a polar bear and other large mammals for public amusement in a baroque-style hunting enclosure inspired by Roman arenas. These animals were too valuable and difficult to obtain to be killed but defanged and de- clawed, were pitted against each other in faux fights.
In England, entertainers had been displaying all sorts of animals at carnivals and fairs since medieval times. The traveling menagerie, which derived from the processions of Europe’s ambulatory monarchs and their entourages, first took to the roads at the turn of the eighteenth century. In a bid for respectability, the owner of one bragged he was doing “more to familiarise the minds of the masses of our people with the denizens of the forest than all the books of natural history ever printed.”
Nobody contributed more to the popularity of captive polar bears or the nature of modern zoos than Carl Hagenbeck. In 1848, Carl Hagenbeck Sr., a Hamburg fishmonger, exhibited six seals he’d received as bycatch from fishermen before selling them at a handsome profit. At age fifteen, Carl Hagenbeck Jr. took over what would become Europe’s most famous animal-trade business. He soon supplied zoos, menageries, and wealthy individuals, including the Kaiser, and in his early twenties already ranked among Europe’s top dealers in exotics. With a nose for opportunity, he branched out into the budding entertainment industry, mounting “ethnological” and large carnivore shows as well as a circus.
From their very beginnings as cultural institutions, zoos have tried to balance entertainment and education. Today, with climate change and habitat loss from development threatening the polar bear’s natural habitat, many have added conservation to their mission, with captive breeding programs and scientific research. This gallery offers a brief stroll through zoos past and present, a glimpse at how we have kept and presented the Arctic White Bear.
Text by Michael Engelhard
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.