Search This Blog

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bärle's Story

The world of zoos and aquariums is a world of stories.  Some of those are the stories of places or species.  Others are the stories of individuals - human and animal.  When, in my storytelling post, I mentioned a few of the zoo stories that I would love to see shared with the world, one of those was the story of the Suarez Seven - seven polar bears being kept in inhumane conditions as circus performers in Latin America.  I only knew the story because I was lucky enough to help care for one of the bears after she started a new life in an American zoo.  For the most part, it's not a well known tale.

Else Poulsen knows the story of the Suarez Seven better than most people, and more importantly, she was ready to share it.  Over her thirty-year career as a wildlife biologist and zookeeper, Poulsen has worked with a wide variety of species, but bears have always had a special place in her heart.  She has published books and scholarly articles on bear biology and, as the founding consultant for Behavioral & Environmental Solutions, has worked to improve conditions for captive bears around the world.

Drawing on her experiences with the "runt" of the seven, Poulson introduces the world to a very special polar bear in her new book, Bärle's Story: One Polar Bear's Amazing Recovery from Life as a Circus Act, which will be released very shortly.  Poulsen was kind enough to offer some background on Barle and the rest of the seven in a brief interview:

Why did the plight and the rescue of Bärle and the other six polar bears touring the tropical Caribbean in the Suarez Brothers Circus capture the hearts of millions of people around the globe?

When it was first discovered that there were polar bears suffering in the tropical heat of Mexico and the Caribbean in 1996 there was an international outcry of indignation. People seemed to instinctively understand that polar bears did not belong in tropics.  In the circus they were constantly on the move, lived in a crate sized cages, and were physically and mentally abused during training sessions and performances.  In the six years that it took to rescue the bears, one bear named Yiopa suffered and died of a curable worm infestation left untreated by circus officials until effective veterinary intervention was too late. Organizations such PETA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, dropped their normally adversarial political agendas and worked closely together to free the bears.  Other advocates included US senators, Congress, the Government of Manitoba, and the global media.

First, there was a break, one bear named Alaska was found to have false documents, was rescued and given a new home at the Baltimore Zoo. Then, the remaining Suarez Six, as they had been dubbed by the media, were rescued in a complicated operation involving hundreds of professionals from zoos, Fed Ex, governments, and PETA.  One bear named Royal overheated and died on route. The other five arrived safely at their new homes to begin their lengthy recovery. Two of the males named Willie and Masha were given new homes at the North Carolina Zoo, two other males named Kenny and Boris were rehomed at the Point Defiance Zoo in Washington, and the littlest bear, a female named Bärle arrived safely at the Detroit Zoo in November 2002. Bärle became a celebrity, beloved by thousands who followed her recovery as she learned to become a polar bear.

Bärle "hunting" seals at the Detroit Zoo, Photo Credit: Tom Roy

Why wouldn’t the zoo professionals who rescued Bärle and the other six polar bears consider releasing them all back into the wild?

Growing up to be a successful polar bear takes more than just the nature of what they are born with; like growing humans, it also takes nurturing.   Although a bear has an urge to hunt for seals, she must learn from her mother where to find seals and how to hunt them. She also learns how to socialize with other bears, how to find and court mates, how to raise young, how to weather an Arctic storm, and many other life sustaining skills. Bears continue to learn about their environment after they leave their mothers, honing their hunting, social, and survival skills. Polar bears that have lived in the circus world for many years have not learned wild bear survival skills. Due to poor living conditions and diets, they are most often not healthy animals. It can take years for such a bear to recover mentally and physically.  If these bears were to be released into the wild they would either die of starvation or be killed in encounters with other bears, other animals, or humans.

In your close relationship with Bärle in her recovery, what did you learn about polar bears and their abilities?

I had twenty years of experience working with polar bears before I met Bärle, and had learned that polar bears are intelligent, social animals, that share food, have language, use tools, and problem solve. Even though Bärle was a middle aged bear of 18 years when she arrived at the Detroit Zoo, she was as innocent as a cub to the ways of adult polar bear behavior.  We began to work on her mental and physical health immediately tending to her medical needs while slowly increasing the complexity of her environment so we did not overwhelm her. “What Bärle wants, Bärle gets” became our recovery slogan as we created for her a safe living environment where she could try new things, make mistakes, and try again. It was a lot to negotiate and Bärle would need a friend to help her through the process. I became that friend. Over time she became skilful at communicating with the seven other polar bears that lived at the zoo, chose a mate, and successfully raised her own cub. Although Bärle’s origin was a mystery, her skillful ability to raise her cub suggested that she had been raised by her mother in the wild. Bärle was the most abused bear I had worked with both in longevity and circumstance. Her relentless effort to uncover her polar bear sensibilities and learn to fit in with grace and raw determination was an inspiration to us all. She taught us that animals can recover; even animals who have been severely abused for years can recover.

Did Bärle really teach her cub Talini how to hunt live seals at the Detroit Zoo?

Yes, Bärle is the only captive polar bear in the world who has taught her cub how to hunt seals. The Detroit Zoo had completed their new polar bear complex called the Arctic Ring of Life in 2001.  It features a 170,000 gallon, thirteen foot deep salt water pool which is divided in the center by an acrylic wall giving access to seals on the one side and polar bears on the other. When it was first built there was some concern over how the seals would deal with the fact that one of their top predators lived next door. Planners counted on the fact that seals are intelligent creatures. Within a few hours of visual access the seals understood that the bears could not get at them and a never ending game of tag ensued between some of the animals. Triton, the young male polar bear who ultimately befriended Bärle, also befriended Kiinaq the young male gray seal and the two played together day after day. Bärle’s attitude toward seals never changed. Seals were meant for hunting, and she spent hours keenly watching them, and developing and perfecting hunting techniques. This suggested that Bärle had been raised by a wild mother before being orphaned. When Bärle raised her own cub named Talini, she taught her these perfected techniques in serious teaching sessions where Talini was not allowed to play with toys or the visitors she could see through the windows. Outside of hunting instruction, Bärle not only allowed Talini to play with humans through the windows but encouraged it and seemed to use humans as cub-sitters while she rested. 

Bärle and Tailini, Photo Credit: Tom Roy

What was your objective in telling Bärle’s story? What can people do to help protect captive bears like Bärle and wild polar bears?

Bärle’s rescue and recovery is the remarkable story of what is possible when we drop the human agenda and focus on the animal’s agenda. Interviewing the other team members, so many years later for the book, was a remarkable experience.

The good will that acted as the catalyst for the rescue, rehabilitation, and recovery of these circus bears is still alive today in each person whose life was touched by the Bärle, Alaska, Royal, Willie, Masha, Boris, and Kenny. I wrote the book to inspire readers to make a difference by asking questions of local, regional, national, and international organizations and authorities. Where did this bear in this commercial, movie, circus, zoo, or road-side menagerie come from? Is he well cared for? Will the polar bear population survive global warming? What are we doing or what can we do to help? Is the added pressure of hunting polar bears helping to conserve them? Asking questions makes organizations and authorities accountable and life invariably improves for bears.

It's a testament to the care and commitment of so many people from so many organizations that the polar bears of the Suarez Seven were given a chance to escape their inhumane confinement and live out the rest of their lives as bears, not as circus performers.  A huge "thank you" to Else Poulsen for sharing Barle's Story!  Be sure to check out her new book, Barle's Story! 

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.