Manitoba polar bear’s incredible journey ends

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After travelling from the chilly wilds of Churchill to a steamy cell in a Central American circus to the biggest polar bear exhibit in North America, a Manitoba polar bear has finally died in Detroit this week.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/07/2012 (3671 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After travelling from the chilly wilds of Churchill to a steamy cell in a Central American circus to the biggest polar bear exhibit in North America, a Manitoba polar bear has finally died in Detroit this week.

“She did so well when she was taken out of the circus,” said the Detroit Zoo’s Scott Carter.

Barle the polar bear was rescued from the Suarez Bros. Circus in Puerto Rico in 2002, regained its health, gave birth to a cub and delighted staff and visitors at the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Circle of Life until she was euthanized at age 27 with cancer Wednesday.

Handout Barle the polar bear endured blistering heat in a Puerto Rican circus before being rescued and sent to Detroit.

“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of emotion from the community,” said Carter, the zoo’s chief life sciences officer.

“She was a favourite of our staff and well known because of her story.”

The plight of circus polar bears — discovered by Free Press photographer Ken Gigliotti on vacation in Mexico in 1996 — made headlines around the world.

Barle the polar bear endured blistering heat in a Puerto Rican zoo before being rescued and sent to Detroit.

Barle and two other bears had been exported from Churchill to a zoo in Germany. The zoo sold them to a circus touring steamy Central America and Mexico, where the polar bears survived sweltering days caged in sunny, 45 C parking lots. In 2002, six polar bears in Puerto Rico were seized and sent to new homes at zoos in the United States, but one died in transit.

Barle, a small female, survived but looked worse for wear when she arrived at Detroit’s then-new $14.9-million Arctic exhibit.

“She came to us in November and she had this kind of sparse coat,” Carter said.

Zoo staff didn’t know how the polar bear, which had been kept in horrific conditions in Central America, would cope in its new environment, he said.

“She loved going outside in the cold. By her second winter here, she grew a big, full coat.”

That came as no surprise. What they weren’t expecting was how much she loved the heat.

“What we noticed over the years was she was much more comfortable in the heat than the other bears,” said Carter.

“When other bears were lying in the shade or in the water, you could see her laying out in the grass.”

The other surprise was how she took to motherhood. Barle gave birth to a cub two years after she arrived at the zoo.

“We didn’t know what to expect after having the horrible life she had,” Carter said. “She was a great mother. You’d see her all the time playing with her cub.” Her cub, Talini, still lives at the Detroit zoo and staff hope she will give birth one day as well.

Barle quit eating recently and zoo staff knew something was wrong.

“Barle loved to eat,” said Carter. When the vet discovered she had cancer, Barle was put down right away, he said.

Winnipeg’s zoo hasn’t had a polar bear on display since its beloved bruin Debby died in 2008. The old, substandard polar bear enclosure was closed for good and a new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre opened for business in January.

When the zoo’s $200-million redevelopment is complete in 2013, tall windows will give a view of the Journey to Churchill exhibit, a four-hectare trip through the tundra.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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