Friday, November 2, 2012

Polar Bear OCD

I went to the zoo for a field trip the other day.  It was the first time I had been to the Kansas City Zoo since they got Nikita the Polar Bear.  He has been there since 2010 and is sort of a big deal in KC.  The first big animal the zoo has gotten in recent years, and his habitat is beautiful.  It is larger than most habitats for Polar Bears and, according to an article from the Kansas City Star, actually exceeds size requirements.  But when you think of the fact that polar bears naturally roam close to 1,000 miles in the wild, any enclosure, no matter how state-of-the-art and eco-friendly, seems small.
When you first walk up to the habitat you see a polar bear swim right up to glass, place his huge paws on the glass and then do a back flop into the water.  "This is great!" I thought.  So fun that the kids got to see him up close.  What luck that we walked up right when he swam by the glass.  I then expected him to swim further away, climb on the rocks to lounge, or go grab a snack.  Instead, the back flop is followed by a turn into the water, a quick hop onto the rocks, another back flop and then an underwater twist to the original spot along the glass.  He makes one big circle, never stopping, rarely pausing.  The same movements of his limbs each time.
Zoo visitors recognize this very quickly.  Listening to the others I heard everything from that he has OCD to it being his way of having fun.  Of course I can relate to OCD so I put that info in my back pocket, snapped  a few pictures, and then got pulled away by my group of energetic 4th graders.   Hours later, after we walked through the entire zoo, we passed Nikita on the way out.  I glanced over to the Polar Bear habitat.  There he was, still circling, still swimming.  Hours had passed yet he was still doing the same repetitive movement, a movement I have never seen while watching any nature specials.  It broke my heart.
So when I got home from the zoo I decided to look into this a bit more.  It turns out I am not the first one to notice this behavior, obviously.  What Nikita has is stereotypic behavior.  It's common in many animals in captivity, especially polar bears, elephants and big cats.  It is sort of like OCD in animals.  It can be caused by many different factors, with boredom, smaller spaces and lack of choices being among them.  With OCD it is often that the person with the disorder feels like they "have" to do the same thing or think the same thought over and over or else something bad will happen.  It is unknown, of course, if this is what is going through Nikita's mind.  But, watching him do the same exact movement over and over, I can't help but reflect on my own struggles with OCD.
"If I don't imagine myself dying a horrible, fiery car-crash death, then I will surely die that way on any road trip I take."
"If I don't step on the manhole cover with my right foot, something bad is going to happen."
Most everyone has a little of this thinking going on, but it's when it takes over your life that it becomes a problem.
Thankfully my OCD/If-Then thinking days are more or less over.  But if Nikita feels that same way I wish I could just put my hands on his shoulders and tell him it's okay to stop swimming.  If he doesn't do that backflip, everything will still be okay.  When I see anyone suffering I naturally want to help.  And while I can't go up to Nikita, hold his hands, and tell him that he will be okay if he stops his nervous swimming cycle, I can tell YOU that.  Do you have anything in your life that you just can't let go of?  If you are plagued by obsessive thinking, you can get better.  Nothing bad will happen based on an action or thought you do or do not take or think.  I promise.

Swim towards the glass

Push off

Back flop into water...repeat.

On the other side of this, I do know that polar bears in the wild are losing their homes at an alarming rate.  I get that a life lived in a lavish enclosure with every health and nutritional need met is much better than being pushed out of existence.  Or is it?  What kind of life are these animals that we are "saving" living?  Please feel free to share your thoughts and observations with me.  I am definitely pro saving endangered species, but bring up behavior disorders and it really gets me thinking.  Maybe I should see if Dr. S will go work with Nikita? :)


  1. Hey girl, I haven't forgotten! Don't worry :) Hope you're doing well!

    1. Thanks for letting me know! Looking forward to your email :)


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