The Story of Zara: the polar bear who lived and died in captivity

On the 18th January 2016, video footage was released of an elderly polar bear being made to perform for a crowd in the UK. The footage, filmed in 2013, shows a broken animal; drooling and rocking on her pedestal as her trainer brandishes sticks in front of her to make her move through the routine she is being made to perform. This tragic footage is her legacy. The polar bear, named Zara, died in 2014, after spending 31 long years in captivity; used in the entertainment industry and ending her days in a rural town in Oxfordshire. She was thousands of miles from her natural home – a home she never experienced.

The details of Zara’s life of endless exploitation are hazy and it is difficult to put together a reliable timeline of her experiences, much of which happened behind closed doors at the company ‘Amazing Animals’, that rented her out to the entertainment industry for profit. What little is known has been gleaned from snippets of information published online; some of which cannot be fully verified.

Zara’s sad life began on Christmas Eve, 1982, in a zoo in Karlsruhe, Germany. Before she was three years old, it is believed she was sold to animal trainer and circus Director, Gerd Simoneit-Barum, along with three other cubs. The photo below shows Gerd in the 1980s with three polar bears; one of which could be Zara.

Gerd Simoneit with three polar bears, one of which could be Zara

Gerd Simoneit with three polar bears, one of which could be Zara

Zara is reported to have performed as part of Gerd’s company before being sold to Jim Clubb in around 1997. Clubb is a UK animal trainer with a history of training animals for circuses and the television and film industry. It was at Clubb’s premises that the heartbreaking footage of Zara was filmed in 2013; less than a year before her death.

Before the bears could be brought to England they were reportedly temporarily housed with a Kodiak bear and three Asian black bears at a park in Spain, a completely unnatural climate for a polar bear.

c Tom ellis zara

Zara at Amazing Animals. Photo: Tom Ellis

Throughout her life, Zara appeared in many TV adverts and motion footage of her was used in the making of the film The Golden Compass, which features CGI polar bears. She was also used in shows at the open days held annually at Heythrop Zoological Gardens, the home of Amazing Animals. In 2013 a visitor filmed Zara in a circus show at the open day where she was made to sit on a stool, perform tricks and entertain the crowd.

‘We watched an animal show where 100 people were shut into a small barn with one exit while we watched leopards, lions and a very elderly polar bear perform tricks in a wobbly cage while men banged canes behind their backs to make them move. We were told we could not exit unless we put out hand up to inform the lady guarding the door. I feared for everybody safety in the room, particularly all the small children. I felt like I’d gone back in time, disgusting treatment of animals and lack of regard for public safety.’

Marc Bekoff, CAPS Patron and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was appalled by the footage and spoke out with his expert opinion:

“Zara, the polar bear, was showing clear signs of stress when being made to perform. This is clear from her repeated pacing on the spot and shaking her head, classic stereotypic behaviours. To think she lived and died in captivity is tragic.

The use of animals in any form of entertainment is outdated, unethical and unnecessary to say the very least. Intelligent and emotional animals including lions, tigers and polar bears who travel great distances can only lead lives of boredom and misery when forced to live in a cage and trained to perform unnatural tricks on demand.”

In 2014 Zara was euthanised at the age of 31 years, after being diagnosed with cancer. Many will recognise that polar bears will live shorter lives than this in the wild and Amazing Animals have even used this as an argument to defend their captivity of Zara. However we would argue that a life of 31 years of exploitation and suffering, is nothing to be happy about.

Although captivity takes away the risk of habitat destruction or the unreliable food sources – both challenges polar bears face in the wild – this does not justify the unnatural life that Zara lived. Zara was forced to perform for humans to be entertained. We feel she deserved a life of freedom, a life where she could make choices, have a family and roam for miles. Her captivity deprived her of a whole wealth of incredible experiences that the wild has to offer, her true life.

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