Nov. 27, 2002 -- Life in the tropics is finally over for six polar bears who became a cause célèbre; after animal rights activists captured undercover footage of the animals.
The bears, known as the Suarez Six, were taken into the custody of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Puerto Rico earlier this month after being seized from a travelling Mexican-owned circus. They are being rehabilitated in zoos in Washington State, Michigan and North Carolina.
Animal rights activists recorded undercover video they say shows the animals being beaten and whipped. They were reportedly forced to live in cramped cages under unhealthy conditions. In fact, these bears, which normally enjoy a cool 11 degrees Fahrenheit, often endured temperatures of more than 100 degrees.
"They were in extreme discomfort. They were extremely emaciated and they were filthy," according to Debbie Leahy, the director of captive exotic animals for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "These were really just the most pathetic creatures I've every seen."
Biologists say circus handlers fed the bears dog chow, white bread and lettuce. They believe the bears received fish once a week. A normal diet would be much higher in fat and protein, consisting mainly of fish and meat. The circus is now under investigation, a case which could eventually result in large fines and possible jail time.
Tacoma Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium Curator Dr. Karen Goodrowe says she was ecstatic to learn the polar bears would be taken from the circus.
"And it's like 'holy cow!' people really do care!" Goodrowe said. "And people don't want animals in bad conditions and that's the really great thing." One polar died while being flown out of Puerto Rico, the other five are now in quarantine, undergoing tests to make sure they are healthy enough to join other polar bears at the three zoos. So far, rotten teeth, skin disorders and poor diet appear to be the main problems.
Learning to Be Polar Bears Again
While normal polar bears spend a great deal of time in water, biologists believe several of the bears never had access to pools.
At the Point Defiance Zoo, two bears, Kenneth and Boris, are now going about the business of learning to be polar bears again. Boris took his first swim several days ago, but Kenneth is still cautious and apparently uncertain about the tank.
"The new bears are very tentative. They walk very softly. They're very tentative about their surroundings about people and that saddens me," said biologist Lisa Trigs. "When they walk, they walk a little bit different than another bear, so we don't know if they have any structural bone problems from a lack of nutrition."
But the bears are steadily improving, beginning to play more and eat better. In the next several months the bears are expected to be introduced into large exhibits with other polar bears where they will have access to open space and large water tanks.
"It's really exciting seeing them make progress every day," Trigs said. "It's really exciting."