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)
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2014

barle the polar bearAnthony Freda for Reader’s Digest

On a south-facing slope in northern Canada, chunks of snow roll down the hummock from an underground disturbance. When the surface finally erupts, out pops the head of a female polar bear. She inhales through her nose and exhales through her mouth.

Four months earlier, the bear had given birth to twins. Delicately furred, they tucked into her belly for warmth and food. She licked her cubs to keep them clean, nudging them back into place when they squirmed away.

At four weeks, they could hear, and at five weeks, their eyes opened fully. By their sixth week, they were trying to walk. Soon it was time for a move—the space was too small and cramped, as the cubs trampled all over their mother and each other.

The female emerges from her den for the first time in eight months. She slides down the knoll 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 into their mother.

Bärle’s life could have begun this way. It’s thought that she was born and raised on the west bank of Hudson Bay in 1984. Records suggest she may have been sent to Germany in 1986 through the Manitoba Polar Bear Export Program. Developed by biologists, conservation officers, and government officials, the program was dedicated, in large part, to relocating orphaned cubs to facilities abroad. In Germany, Bärle (pronounced “bear-la”) 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 polar bears (Alaska, Royal, Willy, Masha, Boris, and Kenny) were forced to perform pantomimes of human behaviors: walking upright while climbing stairs, dancing to music, and playing with balls. Bärle was denied not only the ability to run, swim, and climb 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 Caribbean environment hostile to her polar-bred sensibilities.

Over five million years, polar bears have evolved to handle extreme cold. They can overheat when the temperature rises above -4°F, forcing them to plunge into the ocean or lie on their backs on a frozen surface—options unavailable to Bärle. Heat’s effect on a polar bear is dramatic. While humans sweat to stay cool, bears don’t. They must pant to cool off, so the hotter it is, the more frequent the panting. A polar bear’s normal respiration rate is between ten and 30 breaths per minute, with 30 being the high end after exertion. The suspected rate for the circus bears? Sixty, while lying still. As a result, they were dehydrated and scrawny.

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 against the wall to lie on their backs. Animal investigators documented temperatures as high as 113°F next to their cages.

Bärle would likely never have been rescued had it not been for Ken and Sherri Gigliotti, a Canadian couple. In 1996, the Winnipeg residents took a wedding anniversary trip to Cozumel, Mexico, where they visited the Suarez Brothers Circus. They were shocked by the polar bears’ appearance and conditions, so they brought home a circus program and shared it with the Winnipeg Free Press. When the newspaper published the photos 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 Free Press story appeared, Debbie Leahy, then director of Captive Animal Rescue and Enforcement at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, began investigating the Suarez Brothers Circus. She watched the bears perform several times, and once she received 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, zoo directors, veterinarians, and celebrities to advocate for them. In 2002, the Manitoba government passed the Polar Bear Protection Act, which stipulated that only orphaned cubs under two years of age were eligible for zoo placement and that to be considered, zoos must satisfy strict standards.

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

barle the polar bearBill Pugliano / Getty Images

In mid-November, the bears, known as the Suarez Seven, were airlifted out of the Caribbean. A FedEx plane deposited them at zoos across the United States; Detroit, Bärle’s new home, was the final stop. As an animal-behavior expert who had studied bears for a decade, I had been given the task of her rehabilitation. I went with my colleagues from the Detroit Zoo to the airport, where we took possession of the crate containing Bärle.

After our van arrived at the zoo, our team piled out of the vehicle. A gurney was wheeled near the loading dock, and the back doors of the van were opened. When all was in place, we reentered the van and surrounded the crate. On the count of three, we heaved our cargo—weighing 400 pounds—and slid it forward to the gurney. Bärle’s conduct caught me off guard: There was no huffing, jaw snapping, or crouching in a corner, which seemed out of character for a bear. Thinking about her life, I realized that probably the only reprieve she got from her trainers was while she was traveling. In her crate, she couldn’t get hit or hurt. Maybe that’s why she was so calm. But if her crate offered her the only refuge she’d known in her 13 years, would we be able to coax her out of it and into her new quarters?

We wheeled the crate from the loading dock and into the quarantine area—where she would be spending the next 30 days—and pushed one end of the crate to rest on the entrance of her enclosure. While my colleagues chained the crate onto the enclosure fence to secure it for Bärle’s exit, I began interacting with her, hoping to demonstrate we were harmless. In my years of rehabilitating wildlife, I had learned a valuable lesson: First impressions count. I take no chances with charm; I buy my way in. With Bärle, I had grapes—sweet, juicy grapes.

I crouched in front of her, and we locked eyes. Like humans, bears communicate using a combination of words (in their case, sounds that have specific meaning) and body language. I pushed a grape through the crate’s metal mesh and held it up to her nose. 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’ve experienced this behavior before with bears and interpret it as politeness. A bear may not want or need what I’m offering 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 with paw slamming or huffing.

I didn’t know if Bärle had ever tasted grapes before. Her diet in the circus had consisted largely of old bread, lettuce, carrots, and cheap dog food. I offered her a second grape, which she took with her lips and ate. Her smile hadn’t waned. It didn’t matter to me if she ate the fruit or not; my objective was to show her we could be trusted so that she’d 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 were broken or missing, her undercoat was matted, and bald spots revealed flaky black skin. Her facial muscles had atrophied, giving her the sunken appearance of an abused bear. She looked older than her 18 years—in captivity, polar bears can live until their late 30s—yet a cub-like innocence shone through her expression. The complexity of it and her radiance drew me in.

Michelle Seldon, associate curator of mammals, told me the crate was locked in place. “It’s time,” she said. I tossed a trail of grapes from the crate to a room where a straw nest awaited. I stepped out of the enclosure and locked the door, and we lifted the slides between the enclosure and the crate.

Bärle stayed seated. I called her name. One ear rotated in my direction. She inhaled, assessing her environment. She took one step, then another over the threshold. Fighting to contain our delight, we slowly closed the slides behind her. For us humans, this moment was deeply moving. Some staff members had tears in their eyes; we were shutting the door on Bärle’s circus life forever.

No doubt she had detected the drop in temperature, the grapes, and straw so fresh, you could smell its sweetness. Bärle feigned interest in the grapes. Then she moved forward, gaining speed down the hall to the straw. She approached it cautiously, first mouthing and smelling it, putting a paw in, then mowing her belly through it, and finally falling over in a full-body roll-and-rub dance. With straw caught in her dreadlocked coat, she fell asleep. Like relieved parents, we turned out the lights and softly closed the door.

Over the next decade, Bärle thrived in her new habitat—a four-acre tundra enclosure with an outdoor cave, two pools, and wood-chip beds. The area was already home to seven other 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