Story of polar bear’s rescue from Caribbean circus told in new book


This review by Jeff Green appeared in CBC News.

The Caribbean is nice, but it’s no place for a polar bear. Like dogs, polar bears don’t have sweat glands, so they pant to cool down.

In 1996, a Winnipeg Free Press photographer was vacationing in Mexico when he came across several polar bears in distress. The newspaper wrote a story about one of the bears, believed to be from Manitoba. The article was read around the world and that’s when rescue efforts began.

The story was about a bear named Bärle, who for 17 years was a star attraction at the Suarez Bros. Circus. The rescue from that circus, and rehabilitation at a Detroit zoo, is documented in a new book titled Bärle’s Story: One Polar Bear’s Amazing Recovery from Life as a Circus Act.

Grimsby author Else Poulsen joined Piya Chattopadhyay on The Current to talk about how she met and rehabilitated the bear in Detroit, after the circus ran into a U.S. legal wall on tour, ultimately freeing the bear thought to be from Churchill, Man.

“The circus ended up in Puerto Rico and that was actually their undoing,” Poulsen said, noting the unincorporated territory of the United States respects American animal rights laws. Bärle was one of several bears in the circus found to have falsified papers. When the circus left, it left without Bärle, who was eventually moved to the Detroit Zoo.

Poulsen is an international expert on bear behaviour who was tasked with making Bärle a bear again. It was a relationship likened to rehabilitating a traumatized child. But how do you get a polar bear in distress to trust you?

“I [started] with food and bribed my way into friendship,” Poulsen said.

Polar bear was like a child

She said Bärle was “cub-like” when she arrived in Detroit. The animal was calm in her cage, which is odd for polar bears held in captivity. They prefer to fight their way out.

“In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense, because the only time Bärle and the other bears were not being trained with negative reinforcement or punishment … was when they were travelling from location to location, and they were in their crates and they were treated like cargo. So she was perfectly safe in there,” Poulsen said.

How Bärle got to the Caribbean is still a mystery. So too, is her exact origin.

“It’s most likely her mother was poached,” Poulsen said. “That happened with some regularity.”

Bear likely wild when poached

Bears in Manitoba’s polar bear rescue program have a tattoo on their body to identify them, usually somewhere on the the lip. Bärle had no such tattoo, but it was later, when she gave birth at the Detroit Zoo, that Poulsen really confirmed that she was in fact a wild bear.

“Bärle ended up telling us just through her behaviour that she was a wild bear,” Poulsen said. “Just by the way that she raised her young cub, Talini. She raised that cub like a wild mother would.

“We know in captivity, we’ve seen it in captivity, that animals that have been raised by their own mother can raise their own offspring well…. Animals that are hand-reared don’t seem to have that ability.”

Bärle liked rotisserie chicken

The story of rescue and rehabilitation has some advice on how to act if you come across a bear. Poulsen said she had to act like a bear, approaching Bärle from the side. She sat and ate with Bärle too, even teaching the bear how to eat a peanut like a bear — crack the shell inside the mouth then spit out the shell. Bärle was used to a Caribbean diet. She liked rotisserie chicken — not raw fish and seal. Poulsen said she frequently uses the smell of chicken to prime the appetite of the bears she rescues.

“No animal is cut out for circus life,” Poulsen said. “Aside from living in the tropics, which polar bears just aren’t meant to do, they were taught tricks, you know, the kind of thing you would see on the Ed Sullivan show 100 years ago where the polar bears are walking on big balls, or they climb a big staircase and they go down a slide, or they dance on their hind legs. You name it in terms of hokey tricks, these animals were forced to do it.”

After 10 years free from the circus Bärle died in 2012.

Poulsen said Bärle lived to be 28. In the wild or in captivity, that’s a long life for a polar bear. Poulsen said she was happy that the bear had a decade of choice while living, and said the captive environment needs to mimic the choice of the wild environment. She admits the path to how Bärle came to captivity is of concern, but not her main one. She said as long as humans are roaming the planet, there will be some animals in captivity. How they fare in that captivity is what she’s concerned about.

“We have to be smart in our communities and ask where do those animals come from?”

For the original report go to

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