Polar Bears In Entertainment
/ Post by Katie Billing of Polar Bears International
Animals have entertained people since the beginning of time. Gladiators were forced to fight lions, rodeos were very popular in the Wild West, and bullfights continue as a Spanish tradition. But one popular form of animal entertainment occurred under the big top.
The thrill of the circus has been in American history for over 200 years. The first circus to come to America was in April 1793. The circus consisted of a tightrope walker, a clown, and a talented English equestrian rider who came up with the idea. Over time more and more acts and animals were added to the circus. In the 1800s elephants were seen, followed by lions, tigers, and leopards. The circus charged admission with the animals on display. During this time in the 1820’s circuses were called menageries. It wasn’t until 1833 when animal acts started to emerge into culture. Isaac Van Amburgh was the first big cat trainer in the circus world. He entertained audiences with daring and theatric feline acts.
People have a natural curiosity for the bizarre, and the 1850s marked the golden age of the circus. In 1852 the U.S. had around 30 traveling circuses. P.T. Barnum’s, “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus,” made its debut. This circus was one of the biggest acts in the world. The Ringling Brothers took over the scene in 1891. The big top has continued until today and remains a part of pop culture.
Ursula Böttcher is the most well-known bear circus trainer. Ursula started working with polar bears in 1959 with Circus Barley in Germany. She ended up training 10 polar bears for circus acts around Europe. Her favorite bear, “Alaska,” was trained to kiss her at the end of the act (See above photograph, photo credit to Jean Villiers). Böttcher came to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus in the United States in 1974. The trained polar bears preformed numerous acts including jumping through a fire hoops and balancing on balls. Böttcher retired after her final act in 1998 at Circus Busch-Berlin. The polar bears were then sold to various zoos in Germany.
Other polar bear actors are not as lucky. The Hermanos Suarez Circus had a polar bear act which received lots of negative attention. The polar bears were kept in high temperatures and small living conditions. Animal activists brought the issue up to the U.S House of Representatives and demanded for federal action. “In March 2002 a judge acquitted the circus owner of the charges leveled against him, and the bears still perform a ten-minute act, nine times a week,” (Bekoff, 26). Only one of the bears was seized by the U.S. wildlife officials and placed in the Baltimore Zoo.
Animals have been involved in entertainment for centuries. As more entertainment evolves with technology, the less live animal acts will exist. Whether or not you accept the circus as entertainment, know that not all animals are treated with the respect they deserve. It is up to us to set a standard of well-being, respect, and love for the wildlife and nature that surrounds us.
*Photo credit: Jean Villiers