Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bear witness

Bärle's post-circus rehab a story of empathy, compassion

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For at least 13 years, Bärle, a polar bear thought to have been born on the west bank of Hudson Bay in 1984, was kept in a small, filthy cage, fed lettuce and sometimes dog food, and was whipped and beaten to perform circus tricks, often in a sweltering tropical environment.

In November 2002, Bärle and six other polar bears were rescued and removed from the Suarez Brothers Circus. And so begins B§rle's Story, an informative, compassionate and fact-filled tale of one bear's road to recovery.

In her second book on bears, animal behaviour specialist and zookeeper Else Poulsen focuses mostly on B§rle, and on the ups and downs of B§rle's rehabilitation at the Detroit Zoo. But she also speaks to the need for a better understanding and appreciation of the at-risk polar bear.

The Ontario-based bear expert has more than 25 years of experience working with bears. She has worked at the Calgary and Detroit zoos, the latter of which being where much of this story takes place. Poulsen's Smiling Bears was published in 2009, and similarly details the rich emotional lives of the animals.

Bärle's Story has an important Winnipeg connection -- as Poulsen explains, Bärle and the other bears would never have been rescued if it weren't for the initial efforts of Winnipeggers Ken and Sherri Gigliotti. (Ken is a Winnipeg Free Press photographer.)

While on a trip to Mexico, the Gigliottis saw the abuse and were "shocked and appalled that these magnificent animals could be so out of place and so far from home."

They acted, bringing back a circus pamphlet that included photos of the captive bears. The pictures were published by the Free Press and international attention was brought to the bears' plight.

It was this "simple act of indignation," Poulsen says, that prompted a chain of events that led to the bears' eventual rescue. Many helped along the way and without them there would be no story.

Manitobans interested in the opening of the new polar bear exhibit, Journey to Churchill, at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo will also likely be interested in this story of Bärle's journey, for it is packed with intriguing facts about polar bears and the Arctic.

A few examples: Polar bears can overheat if the air temperature is above -20 C. Two-thirds of the worlds' polar bears live in Canada, with Churchill being well-known to many as the animals' capital of Canada. Polar bears smile and will lock eyes when they want to communicate. And a male bear wishing to mate will often (wisely) bring gifts to the sought-after female.

As the recovery process begins, Poulsen's skill, attentiveness, patience and empathy for Bärle are evident throughout. She tells us, "Bärle was the most abused bear I had ever been assigned to work with, in both the longevity and the circumstances of her abuse."

And yet she is caught completely off-guard when she first lays eyes on Bärle. "The small bear with the raggedy fur turned around and moved right up to the mesh to face me, smiling slightly and making direct contact when I quietly called her name, Bärlein."

The remaining chapters detail Bärle's joyful adaptation to her new environment, her choosing of a mate and her passage through motherhood. Not overly technical, Poulsen's prose is, for the most part, easy to follow.

Bärle's rescue is followed by important information on many of the shocking ways in which the polar bear is put at risk by humans. She tells us of the increasing global demand for pelts. "Between 2008 and 2012 there has been a 375 per cent increase in the number of pelts offered at fur auctions in Canada." In China, she says, polar bear pelts reportedly sell for US$80,000.

Poulsen quotes Jill Robinson, who has spent a lifetime in Asia rescuing bears: "China has perfected the artificial insemination of polar bears, speculating that international trade in that species could be taking off." One four-month-old polar bear born through artificial insemination has already been imported from China to work in the entertainment industry, she says.

Poulsen ends on a philosophical note, gathering together the thoughts from other concerned fellow bear conservationists. She asks each of them, "Does one bear's life matter?" and then recounts their thoughtful, impassioned and sometimes disquieting responses.

There is much to learn about polar bears here gleaned from Poulsen's years of experience. Perhaps her most emphatic message, however, is that it is empathy and compassion for the suffering of others that is vital for the survival of the polar bears -- as well as for ourselves.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A1

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