Esta página no está disponible en español.
THE MIAMI HERALD
Polar Bears Sent North To Cool Off
Special to The Herald
November 20, 2002
SAN JUAN - An 18-month-campaign to rescue six suffering polar bears from the tropical heat of Puerto Rico ended Tuesday when the bears were placed aboard a plane for new lives in cooler climates in U.S. mainland zoos.
The joy at the bears' rescue was marred when a male named Royal died en route to Memphis. He had been on his way to a new home at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, said Diana Weinhardt, bear advisor for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which had found the bears their new homes.
''I don't know what happened,'' Weinhardt said. ``We thought we'd dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. For this to happen after working on this for more than a year is heart-breaking.''
All of the bears were underweight and suffered from hair loss and skin infections after languishing for 18 months in temperatures reaching 100 degrees in the eastern Puerto Rican town of Yabucoa while animal lovers tried to find new homes for them.
Acting on a complaint filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- and perhaps responding to a PETA lobbying campaign in Congress -- federal officials had found that the bears were suffering in inhumane conditions and ordered them seized two weeks ago from the traveling Suarez Brothers Circus.
''We couldn't believe our eyes, that there are polar bears in a Mexican circus and they were performing in other tropical countries,'' said Mary Beth Sweetland, a PETA researcher.
The Justice Department ordered the bears seized after finding the Suarez Brothers Circus in violation of several provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, including failure to maintain facilities for public display of the mammals and failure to maintain the bears under humane and healthful conditions, according to Justice Department spokesman Orlando Ríos.
PETA's successful campaign to move the bears to a suitable climate began 18 months ago after researchers at the Norfolk, Va.-based group saw a notice in a federal registry for an import permit, Sweetland said.
The animal rights group sent representatives to Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, to videotape the animals' performance. ''These bears were continually whipped to force them to do inane tricks,'' Sweetland said.
The bears were kept mostly in small cages, with only occasional access to swimming pools or air conditioning, in violation of U.S. law. A videotape recorded by Puerto Rican animal activists showed the bears drooling and swaying in the August heat without water. Their fur was yellowed and crusted with dirt.
PETA worked on several fronts to have the bears liberated from the tropics, Sweetland said.
PETA lawyers appealed to the governments of other tropical countries, like St. Maarten and Aruba, where the circus intended to take the animals, and persuaded them to deny permits for the circus.
The animal rights group lobbied Congress, where 55 House members and 16 senators signed letters demanding federal action to rescue the bears.
PETA even sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing the permit allowing the bears into Puerto Rico, though Sweetland credited the service for taking swift action once the Justice Department ruling gave it authority to seize the bears.
The bears were taken from their cages in Yabucoa Monday evening and taken to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan. They were placed in separate crates provided by FedEx, which volunteered its services to transport the animals. They departed for Memphis at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Two males, Boris and Kenneth, were bound for the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. Baerle, the only female, went to the Detroit Zoo. The other two males, Wilhelm and Marsha, arrived in North Carolina Tuesday night. Royal, who died en route, was to have gone there, too.
''What started out to be one of the most exciting events in N.C. Zoo history has a pall cast over it now,'' North Carolina Zoo marketing director Rod Hackney said of Royale's death. ``But it's exciting for the zoo to have a full complement again.''
The zoo had two polar bears until last month when one suffered an apparent heart attack. The other recently was sent to a zoo in Louisville, Ky., Hackney said.