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Polar bear seized from circus in balmy Puerto Rico
( 2002-03-07 10:54 ) (7 )

US wildlife officers on Wednesday seized a polar bear named Alaska from a Mexican circus accused of keeping the Arctic animal in cramped and overheated quarters in the tropical island of Puerto Rico.

US Fish and Wildlife Service officials and US marshals seized the female bear, named Alaska, from the Hermanos Suarez Circus in the southwest Puerto Rico town of Juana Diaz on an order by US Magistrate Gustavo Gelpi.

The order was based on allegations that the circus illegally imported the bear to Puerto Rico in 2001 with a permit falsely identifying it as another bear named Snowball.

Investigators conducted DNA tests on Alaska's hair and saliva, comparing them with samples from Snowball's relatives, and determined the seized bear was not Snowball. The real Snowball died in May 1994 in a German zoo, wildlife agent Jorge Picon said.

It took about two hours for the officers to sedate and remove the 800-pound (360-kg) bear in a refrigerated truck.

Alaska was to be sent to the Baltimore Zoo in Maryland, where the bear will be quarantined for 30 days and then displayed in a specially built polar bear habitat, wildlife and zoo officials said.

The Mexico-based Hermanos Suarez Circus, which has traveled throughout Puerto Rico for about 18 months, has been under fire for its treatment of its seven polar bears that perform nightly acts, prancing on their hind legs and sliding down a ramp.

Critics have charged that the bears are exposed to the tropical heat in cramped quarters that lack sufficient water.

"Hopefully, this is the beginning of the rescue of the polar bears," said Carla Cappalli, president of the Puerto Rico Animal Protection Federation.


The mistreatment allegations made the bears a cause celebre. British actor Ewan McGregor and Canadian actress Pamela Anderson were among those calling for them to be removed from the circus. Criticism reached a fever pitch last August when the caged bears were videotaped drooling in temperatures above 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) during a stop at Ponce.

Based on the videotape and other evidence, Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources pressed animal-cruelty charges against circus owner Raul Suarez.

But after several delays in the trial, a Ponce judge absolved the owner of the charges on Feb. 28.

Animal rights activists in the US territory accused the judge of prejudice, since it was the third time he had ruled for acquittal in animal-abuse cases. On Monday, Cappalli's group held a news conference where it aired the tape.

Also on Monday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, through its Miami office, filed a motion to remove Alaska. Suarez said he has papers showing the bear was bought 17 years ago from an Atlanta zoo, adding that he would appeal the seizure order.

The other six bears were still with the circus, and Suarez said the seizure of Alaska would not alter plans for the circus to open in the town of Coamo this weekend. 



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