They are no longer suffering in constraining metal cages; they are no longer whipped until they perform unnatural tricks; they are no longer languishing in sweltering temperatures reaching more than 110 degrees. On November 5, 2002, Wilhelm, Masha, Boris, Kenneth, Royale, and Barle, six of the polar bears stuck in Puerto Rico as part of the Suarez Brothers Circus, were rescued by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Law Enforcement.
After 18 months of public struggle and legal wrangling, these bears have a chance for a peaceful retirement at three different American zoos. Though they are not free, there is no question that their lives will be enormously enhanced in their new surroundings. As readers of the Quarterly know, one of the bears, Alaska, had already been confiscated and sent to the Baltimore Zoo as a result of allegations that the circus had falsified documents regarding the origin of this specific bear.
Two bears, Kenneth and Boris, thought to be about 18 years old, have gone to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, where polar bears have been displayed since 1980. The zoo estimates that it will cost approximately $20,000 a year to feed and care for them.
Barle, the only female in the group, has gone to the Detroit Zoo's Arctic Ring of Life exhibit. Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan stated unequivocally, "There is no excuse for the cruelty that was inflicted on these bears....Circus animals often demonstrate the effects of physical and social deprivation, so we're pleased to offer Barle a more natural and stimulating environment." Dr. Kagan had been on Capitol Hill last year urging support for Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer's legislation to prohibit the use of polar bears in traveling circuses.
Painfully declawed Wilhelm and underweight Masha have found new homes at the North Carolina Zoo. Sadly, a third bear, Royale, also was supposed to join them, but he died in transit from Puerto Rico, a testament to the long suffering these animals endured, their inhumane treatment, and the effect of prolonged inaction by the U.S. government in their rescue. Diana Weinhardt, Chair of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Bear Taxon Advisory Group, presciently noted before the death, "We are also very concerned about the current health of the bears, which we know to have deteriorated from their conditions earlier this year."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides that commercial exhibitors of marine mammals such as polar bears, taken for public display, must offer a public education program, maintain these animals under "humane and healthful conditions," and keep proper records related to the animals. The Suarez Circus allegedly has not fulfilled any of these legal obligations. The circus faces penalties of up to $20,000 and one year imprisonment for each violation of the Act.
For additional background on this case, please see AWI Quarterly, Winter 2002 and Spring 2002.