Panting Polar Bears Getting Animal Advocates Steamed Up
On a hot Caribbean night under a circus tent, seven furry polar bears lumber into a caged-in arena and the glare of the spotlight.
One by one, they take their places atop blue podiums around the ring and wait for their trainer to offer bits of raw steak in exchange for a trick.
Their show is the featured attraction at the Suarez Brothers Circus--and an outrage to animal welfare groups, which argue that tropical Puerto Rico is no place for bears accustomed to subzero temperatures.
“I have seen a lot of animal abuse, but this is among the worst,” said lawyer Lori Kettler of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In November, PETA sued two U.S. government agencies for allegedly failing to enforce U.S. laws and confiscate the bears from the Mexican circus.
At a recent nearly sold-out show in the 1,600-seat tent, the audience had a mixed reaction best summed up by 7-year-old Sohemi Pagan Leon.
“My favorite was the polar bears. I have never seen them before, but they looked sad,” said the second-grader from the southern town of Ponce. “You could tell they didn’t want to be there doing tricks.”
Nine times a week the bears perform the 10-minute act, towering on hind legs and taking turns sliding down a ramp. They move stiffly and pant heavily through the routine, directed by pokes and swats from the trainer’s wooden stick.
In the audience sit giggling children and parents, who pay $8 to $15 a ticket. Some watch the bears intently, while others focus on their sticks of cotton candy or on ushers selling pina coladas.
“A circus has to have a main animal attraction--lions, elephants. We are the only circus that has polar bears,” said Roberto Suarez, 62. He and his two brothers, Raul and Jose, are the fourth generation to run the 130-year-old family circus from Guadalajara.
According to PETA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have confiscated the bears when it learned they were kept without air conditioning and swimming pools, which U.S. law requires.
The animal-rights group argues the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t have issued the import permit allowing the circus to bring the arctic bears from Canada. The agencies declined to comment while the case is pending.
“Everyone is so enraged. There have been so many opportunities to correct this situation,” said Debbie Leahy, PETA’s captive animal specialist.
Roberto Suarez said the circus has since bought air conditioners and a swimming pool for the bears. Last month, a Puerto Rico District Court judge acquitted a younger brother, circus owner Raul Suarez, of a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty.
But Carla Cappalli, whose complaints on behalf of the Humane Society of Puerto Rico led to the charge, promises to bring a new case against the circus in federal court.
She says she filmed a video--used in the Puerto Rican court as evidence--showing the caged bears drooling and swaying in 113-degree August heat without water.
Earlier this month, with the air a humid 80 degrees, the bears were sprawled in cages, motionless but for the twitching of their ears against flies.
The Suarez brothers have applied for an export permit, which would remove them from U.S. legal jurisdiction. Until it is issued, they say, they will continue to tour Puerto Rico.
As polar bear exhibitors, they legally must offer education or materials about the animals and their conservation. But the audience didn’t seem to notice that the man with the microphone gave no lecture and the ushers passed out no educational pamphlets.
“A circus isn’t a circus without animals,” said technician Maria Tardaguila, 54, from Juana Diaz. “And the bears look OK. The man, I see, he gives them pieces of meat.”