Puerto Rican Circus Bears
One of the most heartbreaking polar bear stories to make the news in recent years is that of the seven polar bears owned by the Suarez Brothers Circus of Mexico. The circus travels throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where the bears climb stairs, slide down ramps, and do other tricks for the crowds. Sadder still, the circus routinely transports the bears through the sweltering tropical heat without air conditioning and, until recently, housed them in small cages without access to a pool of water or cooling ice.
PBI first learned of the bears several years ago when concerned citizens in various Latin American countries, from Mexico to Costa Rica, contacted us to see if we could help. Although we tried to offer assistance, the laws concerning animals were too lax in those countries for any legal action. Our only recourse was to encourage protests and media attention.
Stricter U.S. Laws
The situation changed, however, when the circus traveled onto U.S. soil in Puerto Rico last summer. There, treatment of the bears is subject to U.S. laws and their possible confiscation, based on inhumane treatment, has become front page news. What's more, the circus cannot transport the bears from the country without an export permit. So far, lawsuits have prevented such a permit from being issued.
PBI's Chairman of the Board, Bob Wilson, and our Advisory Council member, Diana Weinhardt of the Amercian Zoo Association's Bear Taxon Advisory Group, have both been lending their expertise to the situation, as has PBI board member and author Downs Matthews. Bob has been providing assistance to the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, which was re-filed in February with an amended complaint. He also provided help to a Puerto Rican prosecutor who has filed criminal charges of animal neglect against the circus and its owners.
Meanwhile, Diana Weinhardt has contacted U.S. zoos to find potential homes for all seven bears if they are seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She has also traveled to Puerto Rico, with funding provided by PBI, to inspect the bears and the conditions in which they are housed. She reports that the bears now have access to a pool of water and cooling fans that approach minimal housing standards. "The circus owners apparently cleaned up their act for my visit," she says.
She notes that there is no guarantee, however, of how the bears would be transported and housed outside of the U.S.
Downs Matthews, who has written a number of books and articles on polar bears, wrote a declaration (affidavit) on the basic biology and behavior of polar bears for use in the federal lawsuit. His declaration has proved invaluable as most of the polar bear experts in this country are government employees.
As new information becomes available on the "Suarez Seven," as the bears have been dubbed, we will keep you informed. Thankfully, their plight has not gone unnoticed in Washington and a number of Senate and House members have called for their release. The government of Manitoba has protested as well.
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