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The story of a Canadian bear rescued from a Mexican circus

12/05/2014 02:50 EST | Updated 02/04/2015 05:59 EST
The Caribbean is nice but it's no place for polar bears. Like dogs, polar bears don't have sweat glands, so they pant to lose heat.

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

The story was about a bear named Bärle, for 17 years a star attraction at the Suarez Bros. Circus. The rescue from that circus, and her rehabilitation in a Detroit zoo, is documented in a new book, 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, Manitoba. 

"The circus ended up in Puerto Rico and that was actually their undoing," Poulsen said, noting the country was respecting U.S. animal rights laws. Bärle was one of several bears in the circus caught with falsified papers. When the circus left town, Bärle, after 17 years, was free. 

Poulsen is an international expert on bear behaviour who was tasked with making the bear a bear again at the Detroit Zoo. 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. She was calm in her cage, 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... 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. 

But 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."

Bärle's behaviour signalled she was 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 in 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 cup 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."

Her 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 big staircase and the 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 any 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."

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