The Dramatic Rescue of Bärle, the Circus Polar Bear

For 13 years, a female polar bear endured neglect, scorching heat and near-starvation as one of the star attractions at a tropical circus. Then she was rescued.

By Else Poulsen from Bärle's Story: One Polar Bear's Amazing Recovery From Life as a Circus Act (Greystone Books)
polar bear illustrationAmeesha Lee

On a south-facing slope, chunks of snow roll down the hummock from an underground disturbance. The surface juts and out bursts the head of a female polar bear. She inhales through her nose, receiving windborne information, and exhales through her mouth.

Four months earlier, in her den of packed snow, the bear had given birth to twins. Delicately furred, they tucked into her belly for warmth and food. The mother had licked the cubs to keep them clean, nudging them back in place when they squirmed away. At four weeks, they could hear, and at five weeks, their eyes opened fully. In their sixth week, they pushed themselves along, trying to walk. Soon it was time for a change: the space was too small and cramped, as the cubs trampled all over their mother and each other.

The female emerges from the den for the first time in eight months. She slides down the knoll, spread-eagled on her belly, then rolls onto her back, wiggling in the snow to clean her fur. In seconds, two little heads pop from the crater. The cubs try to scramble down the hill, until, giving up control, they tumble like balls, ending up in a free-fall slide right into their mother.

Bärle’s life could have begun this way. It’s thought she was born and raised on the west bank of Hudson Bay in 1984. Records suggest she may have been shipped to Germany in 1986 through the Manitoba Polar Bear Export Program. Developed by provincial biologists, conservation officers and government officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the program’s mandate was, in large part, to rescue bear cubs orphaned by hunters by relocating them to interested facilities abroad. In Germany, Bärle appears to have ended up with animal trainer Fredy Gafner. Shortly after 1990, Gafner took his bear show to the Mexican Suarez Brothers Circus.

For 13 years, Bärle and six other orphaned polar bears — Alaska, Royal, Willy, Masha, Boris and Kenny — were forced to perform pantomimes of human behaviors: climbing stairs, dancing with music and playing with balls while walking upright. Bärle was denied not just the ability to run, swim and climb at will, but also the chance to find a mate, raise young and hunt. She endured mental and physical pain — trainers whipped the bears on the face, head and hindquarters — as well as a sweltering environment hostile to her polar-bred sensibilities.

When not performing, Bärle and her peers were warehoused in a trailer divided into seven 64-square-foot metal cages. They had to lie diagonally if they wanted to rest on their bellies, curl up into a C shape to lie on their sides, or put their feet up against the wall to lie on their backs. As well, life in the tropics posed its own challenges. Over five million years, polar bears evolved to handle extreme cold. Wild bears can overheat if the temperature rises above -20°C, forcing them to plunge into the ocean or lie on their backs on a frozen surface — options unavailable to Bärle and the others. In fact, animal welfare investigators documented temperature spikes as high as 45°C next to the cages.

Heat’s effect on a polar bear is dramatic. Humans sweat to stay cool, but bears don’t. They pant to cool off. The hotter it is, the greater the panting. As a result, the circus bears were dehydrated and scrawny. A polar bear’s normal respiration rate is somewhere between 10 and 30 breaths per minute — with 30 being the high end after exertion. The suspected rate for the circus bears? Sixty, while lying still.

Bärle would likely never have been rescued had it not been for a Winnipeg couple named Ken and Sherri Gigliotti. In 1996, they brought home a program from the circus they had visited during a wedding anniversary trip to Cozumel, Mexico. When the photographs from the program were published in the Winnipeg Free Press later that year, it triggered an international outcry. “We were told some of the bears came from Churchill, Manitoba, and we are from Winnipeg,” said Ken, explaining why they were determined to bring evidence of the bears’ suffering back to Canada. “That made it personal to us, and we were appalled that these magnificent animals could be so out of place and so far from home.”

Soon after the Winnipeg Free Press story appeared, Debbie Leahy, at the time director of Captive Animal Rescue and Enforcement with PETA, began investigating the Suarez Brothers Circus. She watched the bears perform several times. Once she posed as the tourist wife of a businessman and was given a behind-the-scenes tour. During each visit, the bears were panting and filthy. The stench of urine filled the tent, and flies were everywhere. ”It was horrifying,” Leahy said.

Leahy devoted herself to the bears’ rescue. She inspired government officials, community leaders and entertainers to speak up, including Pamela Anderson, Sarah McLachlan and Ewan McGregor. Directors and veterinarians from the Detroit, Knoxville, Atlanta and Baltimore zoos wrote letters on the bears’ behalf.

polar bear illustrationAmeesha Lee
The Manitoba government took notice. In 2002, it passed the Polar Bear Protection Act, which stipulates that only orphaned cubs under two years of age are eligible for zoo placement and that, to be considered, zoos must satisfy strict housing and husbandry standards.

With mounting pressure from interest groups, complaints from the public and regular visits from USDA inspectors, the Suarez Brothers Circus chose to abandon the seven polar bears in Puerto Rico. On November 5, 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially seized custody of the animals. Two weeks later, in San Juan, preparations were made for their transit.

As we pulled up to the Detroit Zoo’s security gates, the van flooded with light. They were expecting us. The zoo staff and I had just returned from the FedEx hangar of the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, where we had taken possession of Bärle. Twenty-four hours earlier, she had been airlifted out the Caribbean. FedEx had deposited her peers at zoos across the United States; Bärle was their final drop-off. An animal behavior specialist who had studied bears for a decade, I was tasked with her rehabilitation.

When we arrived inside, the six of us piled out of the vehicle. Someone turned on additional lights; someone wheeled in the gurney; someone opened the back doors of the van. When all was in place, we re-entered the van and surrounded the crate. On the count of three, we heaved and slid it forward toward the gurney. It must have weighed nearly 200 kilograms. Bärle focused on keeping her balance by standing up and riding it out. Her conduct caught me off guard. No huffing and jaw snapping. She was well-rehearsed in behaving like cargo. Thinking about Bärle’s life on the road, I realized that probably her only reprieve from trainers was when she was traveling. In her crate, she couldn’t get hit or hurt. Maybe that’s why she was so calm.

Like a human conveyor belt, we wheeled the crate from the loading dock into the quarantine area, where we pushed one end of the crate to rest on the enclosure’s entrance. While my colleagues chained the crate onto the enclosure fence to secure it for Bärle’s exit, I began interacting with her, hoping to prove we were harmless. In my years rehabilitating captive wildlife, I had learned a valuable lesson: first impressions count. I take no chances with charm; I buy my way in. I had grapes — sweet, juicy grapes.

Crouching down in front of Bärle, I held the grape up to her nose through the metal mesh. Never taking her eyes off mine, she gently held the fruit with her lips and then intentionally dropped it, with what seemed to be a smile. I have experienced this behavior before with bears and interpret it as politeness. A bear may not want or need what I’m offering at the time but will take it if it wants the interaction to continue. If annoyed, it will refuse the object, refuse to make eye contact, and express aggression, such as paw slamming and huffing.

I didn’t know if Bärle had tasted grapes before. Her diet in the circus had consisted of day-old bread, lettuce, carrots and cheap dog food. I offered her a second grape, which she gently took with her lips and ate. Her smile hadn’t waned. It didn’t matter if she ate the grapes or not; my objective was to show her we could be trusted so she would feel comfortable enough to leave the crate.

Bärle’s face was a curious wash of age and youth. She was a small bear with a head no bigger than mine. Her fur was a mess. The long guard hairs — which work as insulation — were broken or missing, the undercoat was woolly and matted, and she had bald spots revealing flaky black skin. Bärle’s facial muscles had atrophied, giving her a sunken, weary appearance befitting an abused bear. She looked older than her 18 years — in captivity, polar bears can expect to live until their late 30s — yet a cub-like innocence shone through her expression. The complexity of it drew me in.

Michelle Seldon, the associate curator of mammals at the zoo, peered through the door and quietly told me the crate was locked in place. “It’s time,” she said. I tossed a trail of grapes from the edge of Bärle’s crate to the adjacent room, where a giant straw nest awaited.

Bärle stayed seated. I called her name. One ear rotated in my direction. She inched her nose forward and inhaled, assessing the environment. She took a step. Then she took the next full step over the threshold. No doubt she had detected the favorable differences, the drop in temperature, a large enclosure, and straw so fresh you could smell its sweetness — especially if you were a tired bear. Bärle feigned interest in the grapes on the floor. She approached the straw pile cautiously, first mouthing, and smelling, then putting one paw in, then mowing her belly through it, and finally falling over in a full-body roll-and-rub dance. With straw hanging from her brows and caught in her dreadlocked undercoat, she crashed onto her side and fell asleep.

Like relieved parents, we turned out the lights and softly closed the door.

Over the next 10 years, Bärle thrived in her new surroundings — a four-acre tundra enclosure with outdoor cave, two pools and woodchip beds. The facility, called the Arctic Ring of Life, was already inhabited by seven polar bears, and Bärle became close to a male named Triton. On November 22, 2004, she gave birth to a female cub named Talini. In 2012, Bärle died at the age of 27 from liver cancer.

© 2014 by Else Poulsen. Bärle’s Story: One Polar Bear’s Amazing Recovery From Life as a Circus Act is published by Greystone Books