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