BOOKS Mak­ing friends for life ... if the bear can bear it

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - ERIC VOLMERS

When Else Poulsen first met Barle (pro­nounced Bear-la) at the Detroit Zoo, the po­lar bear was un­der­weight, full of par­a­sites, cov­ered in fleas and was ba­si­cally a “hull of a bear.”

At age 19, after 17 years spent per­form­ing in a cir­cus, she still acted like a cub. Most of her nat­u­ral po­lar bear instincts had been beaten out of her, most re­cently at a Mex­i­can cir­cus in swel­ter­ing Puerto Rico. The bears in the act were shipped from place to place in small crates. They were beaten, un­der­fed and didn’t have ac­cess to wa­ter for swimming, which is es­sen­tial to a po­lar bear’s well-be­ing.

“Up un­til this point, she’d seen what I con­sider to be the preda­tory na­ture of hu­mans,” said Poulsen, a bear be­hav­iour ex­pert and zookeeper who was put in charge of Barle’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

“Now, the idea was to set her up with a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship, where she could trust you. You start with food, you share food with her and treat her well and it’s all pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment. I just hung out with her. With that first re­la­tion­ship, it’s as if it acts as an an­chor, from that they de­velop other re­la­tion­ships.

“It’s true for hu­mans, too, if they’ve been trau­ma­tized. If you can get them to have one hu­man re­la­tion­ship that’s trust­ing, that’s seems to be the an­chor to move for­ward and de­velop other re­la­tion­ships.”

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Barle and Poulsen, a world-renowned an­i­mal be­hav­iour ex­pert who spent 18 years work­ing at the Cal­gary Zoo, is only a small por­tion of the larger tale, but it’s the heart of her new book, Barle’s Story: One Po­lar Bear’s Amaz­ing Re­cov­ery From Life as a Cir­cus Act (Grey­stone Books, 228 Pages, $19.95)

Barle, be­lieved to have been born in Man­i­toba, was part of the so-called Suarez Six, po­lar bears who were res­cued from abuse and ne­glect at the hands of the Suarez Brothers Cir­cus in 2002 and shipped to zoos across the U.S. for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

It as a com­pli­cated tale that cap­tured the world’s imag­i­na­tion. It be­gan when a Win­nipeg cou­ple saw the cir­cus and the appalling con­di­tions the bears were be­ing kept in. What fol­lowed was an in­trigu­ing in­ter­na­tional res­cue ef­fort that had groups such as Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals (PETA) and The As­so­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums be­com­ing un­likely al­lies. The res­cue in­volved the dis­cov­ery of the fal­si­fied iden­ti­ties of some of the bears, surveil­lance and, even­tu­ally, a con­fis­ca­tion by gun­point by United States Mar­shal Ser­vices and the United States Fish and Wildlife Ser­vices.

Poulsen, who is now based in Grimsby, Ont. but trav­els the world as a speaker and con­sul­tant, fol­lows that larger story and that of Barle’s slow re­cov­ery, which even­tu­ally led to the bear giv­ing birth to a cub and liv­ing a rel­a­tively com­fort­able life in the Detroit Zoo’s Arc­tic Ring of Life. She died in 2012 at the age of 27 after suf­fer­ing liver can­cer.

Poulsen has chron­i­cled the in­ner lives of bears be­fore. Her 2009 book, Smil­ing Bears: A Zookeeper Ex­plores the Be­hav­iour and Emo­tional Life of Bears, chron­i­cled her work with Snow­ball at the Cal­gary Zoo. It was another case that made in­ter­na­tional head­lines, when Poulsen and a neu­ro­sci­en­tist from the Univer­sity of Cal­gary pre­scribed the bear Prozac to help al­le­vi­ate her con­stant pac­ing and be­hav­iour that seemed to mimic ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive be­hav­iour.

Her ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing decades of study­ing bear be­hav­iour have led Poulsen to be­lieve the crit­ters are much smarter and more emo­tional than we may have pre­vi­ously thought, lead­ing to ground­break­ing changes in how zoos al­ter their liv­ing spa­ces for the an­i­mals.

But, Poulsen says, Barle’s Story is as much about hu­mans as it is an­i­mals, high­light­ing what can be ac­com­plished when po­lit­i­cal agen­das are put aside, she says.

“Or­ga­ni­za­tions that were po­lit­i­cally op­posed to each other dropped their agen­das — their po­lit­i­cal agen­das, their hu­man agen­das — and worked to­gether to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on the an­i­mal agenda,” she said. “As a re­sult, th­ese bears all did well. When we stop our hu­man agenda and stop the in­fight­ing and philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ences and all that stuff and just fo­cus on what’s best for the an­i­mal, the an­i­mals thrive and we be­come bet­ter peo­ple for it.”

For the Cal­gary Her­ald

Else Poulsen, a world-renowned an­i­mal be­hav­iour ex­pert who spent 18 years work­ing at the Cal­gary Zoo, writes about how she re­ha­bil­i­tated an abused po­lar bear in Barle’s Story: One Po­lar Bear’s Amaz­ing Re­cov­ery From Life as a Cir­cus Act.

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