Most of us have been to a zoo at least once. As children, it’s often the highlight of a weekend–watching the prowling big cats, hearing the bellowing elephants, and petting the adorable rabbits–it’s almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, “too good to be true” may be more accurate than we want to admit.

In fact, a certain Japanese video that has recently gone viral due to its “cute” footage shows just how traumatizing zoos can be for their animal residents.

Titled “Headbanging Bear vs Frolicking Students,” the video was shot at Oji Zoo in Kobe in 2011 and shows a Tibetan blue bear interacting with some children giddy with excitement. According to the video description, the bear was in the new bear house, and the animal was “bouncing for some unknown reason, perhaps because of the late autumn heat.” You can check out the video below.

Our more zoologically-inclined readers may have already figured out the problem with this video, and it’s not the little kids tapping on the glass–though that’s certainly nasty behavior. It turns out that the bear’s “headbanging” probably wasn’t simple bouncing for fun or even due to the heat, but more likely an example of stereotypy–which can be most basically defined as repeated and/or ritualistic movements. Stereotypy can be found in both humans and animals, and usually indicates a mental or psychological problem.

With animals, stereotypy is, sadly, extremely common in zoos, usually as a result of animals being kept in improper enclosures or isolated. For example, a report from Oxford summarizing the current state of research stated that up to 40 percent of elephants kept at zoos exhibited some form of stereotypy, though the paper notes that only a few studies have been conducted.

Stereotypical movement itself is not the problem–as one paper from Brown university puts it, stereotypy is “behavior indicative of an abnormal environment.” When animals which typically live in “homes” hundreds of miles across and spend all their time prowling are put in small cages, you can imagine the sort of mental torture they undergo. Just as solitary confinement can have devastating effects on humans, the limited stimulation and inability to express their natural instincts such as foraging can have a significant impact on zoo animals.

▼Both of these elephants are exhibiting stereotypical behavior.
The elephant on the left by swinging its head and “dancing” from back and forth,
and the elephant on the right by pacing the length of the cage.

While there aren’t really any simple answers to this problem–you probably don’t want to just fling the gates open at the lion enclosure at Ueno Zoo and say “Be free!” in the middle of Tokyo–it is something that definitely needs to be addressed. Some solutions suggested by researchers include expanding enclosures, environmental enrichment, and simply removing animals from zoos to be put in sanctuaries. Of course, all of these solutions require a lot of money–and would probably reduce profits for zoos as well, since it would mean fewer animals available to the public.

This is not to say that all zoos or all animals kept in zoos are necessarily suffering–but it is extremely common to find animals locked in inappropriate enclosures. If you spot an animal exhibiting stereotypical behavior in a zoo, there’s not much you can do directly. But you can take videos, contact your local politicians, and try to organize with zoo checking groups like Born Free, with UK and US branches, and ALIVE in Japan.

Sources: Bear Biology, The Independent, RSCPA (UK), Wikipedia, Brown University, ALIVE
Images: YouTube