Public Relations Blog

Barle’s Story by Else Poulsen



“Her fur was a mess. The long guard hairs were broken or missing, the undercoat was wooly and matted, and she had bald spots revealing flaky, black skin. Bärle’s facial muscles had atrophied, giving her a sunken, weary appearance befitting an abused, neglected bear. She looked older than her nineteen years—not unusual for a mistreated animal—yet a cublike innocence, a simple sweetness, and, oddly enough, trust shone through her eyes and expressions.”

In 2001, the Mexican Suarez Brothers Circus came to Puerto Rico amid protests from organizations like PeTA and the USDA, who argued that bringing in seven polar bears to perform in tropical weather was potentially life-threatening and inhumane. One of the original seven polar bears was rescued at gunpoint and flown to the US. The rest were saved in 2002 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service after the circus, prevented from traveling by the US government, abandoned the bears with little food and water.

The Detroit Zoo was fortunate to welcome one of the rescued bears, a friendly adult female named Bärle. In a new memoir, BÄRLE’S STORY: One Polar Bear’s Amazing Recovery from Life as a Circus Act (Greystone Books; June 2014; $17.95), animal behavior specialist Else Poulsen shares Bärle’s struggles and triumphs as she mentally and physically recovers from the trauma she suffered as human entertainment.

Born in the Canadian arctic in 1980s, Bärle’s existence is virtually unknown until her arrival at the Suarez Brothers Circus. It is speculated that her mother was killed and Bärle was sold as a cub by poachers to a German contractor, who then sold her to the circus. She was held in a small, unclean cage with scarce room to lie down; given days-old lettuce and dog food; and was consistently battered while performing tricks for circus-goers in the extreme Caribbean heat. Polar bears can easily overheat and die. Wild bears in the arctic tundra can perish if the temperature is above -4°F, and will dive into the frigid water to cool off.

Along with Bärle’s recovery process at the Detroit Zoo, where she became accustomed to living with other polar bears and slowly forget her circus act past, Poulsen gives readers well-researched details on the history of the polar bear, a species that has been on this planet for almost 5 million years. She passionately talks about the problems of poaching and illegal trade of polar bear pelts across the world in locales such as China, where a Canadian polar bear pelt can sell for $80,000.

BÄRLE’S STORY is a moving portrait of a remarkable bear and Poulsen’s tireless efforts to help her rediscover her true polar bear ways. Poulsen also imparts an urgent call to action for people to learn about the arctic, climate change, animal welfare, and conservation.

Else Poulsen is an award-winning animal behavior specialist with a concentration on the behavior of captive bears, and has worked in Detroit and Calgary as a zookeeper and manager. Since 2007, Poulsen has been the president and co-founder of the Bear Care Group, an international non-profit organization that creates communication, cooperation and education among international bear care professionals. She has worked with the Bear Care Group all over the world, including Detroit, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, China, and Mexico as a consultant for zoos, sanctuaries, and bear rehabilitation facilities