Smiling Bears: A Zookeeper Explores the Behaviour and Emotional Life of Bears

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Robinson is the founder of Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based organization that rescues bears from bile farms.

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Best known for rehabilitating bears from the psychological trauma of captivity, Poulsen dedicated her life to improving their quality of life. She did this through her work as a zookeeper at the Calgary and Detroit Zoos and in one-on-one consulting with zoos, sanctuaries, and wildlife rehabilitators, where she helped bears in distress. She was generous with advice and was the founding president of the Bear Care Group, a network of international bear care professionals who shared experiences and information to improve bear welfare and conservation worldwide.

Following are excerpts from that conversation. I tend to think that bears picked me.

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When I started in the early s at the Calgary Zoo, we had a four-year apprenticeship program where you worked with everything from toads to tigers. There were no college or university courses in this. As I worked my way through the zoo and learned about the husbandry and natural behavior of all the animals, I found myself understanding large carnivores better [than other types of animals].

There are some people who can look at a toad and say, "Yep, that toad is sick.


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I just didn't have a good feel for amphibians. But I did for large carnivores, and over time I realized that I seemed to understand bears better.

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People always ask zookeepers who their favorite animal is. For myself, and for many other keepers, it's the animal that needs you the most. Miggy was an American black bear cub who arrived motherless at the Detroit Zoo.


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She was eight months old and small for her age. She was going to be introduced to other bears, so it was imperative to be with her when she was eating [to teach her how to share]. We would crack nuts together. I did it with a rock and then showed her there was something inside. One day she was in a mood and not her usual jovial self.


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  • She started cracking nuts. Then she made this gutteral noise and bit my hand. That was her signal to stop doing whatever it was I was doing and watch her while she demonstrated the bear way of doing things. Her genetics had kicked in.

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    It's taken a lot of time spent knowing bears personally in the captive community, and it has happened little by little. It's embarrassing to say that it took several years of working around bears before I understood that they smile. Bears smile just like we do. They pull each side of their mouth upwards. They smile for their reasons of self-contentment, just like we humans smile for our reasons of self-contentment.

    It's just that our reasons may not be the same. A human mother may smile if her child does something that she finds funny.

    Smiling Bears

    A bear mom will smile if her cubs do something cute or something that she finds contentment in. That's the similarity. But in other cases, a grizzly bear in Montana might smile when he reaches the top of the mountain and finds thousands and thousands of larvae up there that he can eat.

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    I wouldn't be smiling about that. It doesn't mean anything to me. To do this properly for bears, she found that the best way is to approach each animal as an individual, as a "sum total of his genetic makeup, his experience and his ability to adapt to new circumstances. Particularly striking are her detailed stories of working with Snowball, a compulsively pacing polar bear who was helped only after Poulsen "read" from the bear's behaviour that she needed intense enrichment activities heaps of natural bedding materials, and watermelons and berries and fishsicles to play with and eat and, for a time, Prozac.

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    Manitobans will be particularly interested in, and struck by, the rehabilitation of Barle, one of seven former Suarez Brothers Circus performing polar bears, thought to be originally from this province. Poulsen gives a heartwarming description of the obvious joy Barle expressed the first time she has her own metre-high pile of straw to bed down in: "She flopped sideways into the pile and rolled onto her back, feet in the air, rubbing, gyrating, a smile on her face, saliva running from her nose and mouth. She seemed to be experiencing pure pleasure.

    These are just two of the several polar, black and spectacled bears we meet. Each is an individual that reacts and expresses itself to a patient and extremely observant Poulsen, who includes just enough animal behaviour and biological science to increase the strength of her call for greater understanding of these highly intelligent, complex creatures.

    While at moments tinges of anthropomorphism may be apparent, Poulsen's accounts make it clear that bears do things for bear reasons; they react to their environment as bears in rich emotional lives as they respond to their living spaces and the humans and other bears with which they share them. Doubters should talk to the thousands of people who regularly visited and cared for our Debby.

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    Bonnie Hallman, a University of Manitoba geography professor and St John's College senior fellow, studies zoos as cultural landscapes. You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

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