Polar bear center plans raise growls

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A Norwegian billionaire’s plans to create a polar bear center in his native valley of Hallingdal in southern Norway has stirred growls of protests from animal rights group NOAH. Its leader claims that polar bears should remain in their natural habitat, not held in captivity to be put on display for profit.

Animal rights advocates are protesting plans to create a new polar bear center in Hallingdal, arguing that they do not do well in captivity and are best left in their natural habitat, like here on Svalbard. PHOTO: Norsk Polarinstitutt

Animal rights advocates are protesting plans to create a new polar bear center in Hallingdal, arguing that they do not do well in captivity and are best left in their natural habitat, like here on Svalbard. PHOTO: Norsk Polarinstitutt

“Polar bears that are free wander over a natural hunting grounds of 50,000 square kilometers, and are among those animals documented to experience the most problems when they live in capitivity,” said Siri Martinsen, a Norwegian veterinarian who leads NOAH.

“Holding them as a tourist attraction in Hallingdal totally ignores their natural habitat and their need for a widespread hunting grounds,” Martinsen added. “It’s undignified and reactionary, and allowing permission for this to occur would be completely indefensible.”

NOAH is mounting an effort to halt plans for the polar bear center that newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported is being initiated by billionaire real estate magnate and hotel operator Olav Thon. Last year Thon covered the losses of the Vassfaret Bjørnepark at Flå in Hallingdal, an outdoor park featuring bears that already is a tourist attraction in the mountain valley in Buskerud County.

Stemming losses
Around 65,000 people visited the Vassfaret bear park last year but DN reported that losses have mounted to NOK 18 million over the past five years. Erik Sand, who works for Thon and is the new leader of the park’s board of directors, told DN that Thon “has ambitions for sustainable operations” and thinks new activities and investment in Flå will generate more visitors and more revenues.

Among the new activities is the proposed polar bear center at Vassfaret, and Thon is seeking financing of NOK 50 million (USD 8.3 million) to get it started. Sand told DN that “we’re working on a new project with polar bears that we hope can be realized by 2016. It’s quite a comprehensive project with a scientific center dealing with energy and climate issues that will cost at least NOK 50 million if we manage to get financing in place.”

He confirmed that Thon isn’t planning to cover all expenses of the project, and “the idea” is to attract funding from “other major players” linked to climate and environmental issues, without saying who they may be.

Appealing to state authorities
Sand estimated that Thon has already invested around a half-billion kroner in Flå, and that’s what seems to make Martinsen fear that local authorities will pretty much let Thon and his organization do what they want in the small community. She claims Thon is mostly interested in “exhibiting polar bears in order to attract more people to the park,” and her group wants the plans stopped.

NOAH announced late last week that it’s appealing to Norway’s animal protection authorities at state food and animal welfare agency Mattilsynet to halt the project. “We’re also asking the public to appeal to the authorities, in a polite and professional manner, and ask that they don’t allow polar bears to be held in captivity and put on display in Norway,” Martinsen said

NOAH recently won a victory when a local circus company decided to stop holding elephants in captivity for use in circus performances. “It’s time to understand that respect for animals develops when people accept their needs and their rights to be in their natural habitats,” Martinsen said, “not by putting them on display for money.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund