The Bears By Hovey Burgess
Is there really any wonder why I am completely enchanted by the fact that I share the same planet with the polar bear? This creature is a love of my life and I make no secret about it. The sight of a polar bear moves me like no other.
As a small child and—perhaps importantly—an only child, I grew up in a house where the image of the polar bear was depicted, in some form or another in the most unlikely places: on drink coasters, on a pipestand, in an old photograph. My father was a graduate of Bowdoin College (‘38), where the polar bear was chosen as the school mascot to honor Robert Peary, an alumnus who led the first successful expedition to the North Pole at the turn of the 20th Century. The emblem was everywhere. I was given a stuffed polar bear from my parents at a very young age which stayed with me until my teenage years. The polar bear was a childhood companion. Perhaps more accessible than people.
The other great love of my life is the circus. In fact, one of my earliest memories involved a trip to the circus—I had not yet reached my fifth birthday. I was taken to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. All these years later I recall the elephants, clowns and even a chicken act. I loved everything about it. On later occasions my mother would surprise me with trips to the circus. Why wouldn’t she just tell me? Years later, she said that if she had told me in advance I would be so excited, I would be physically sick.
As I grew into my teens I learned to juggle with the help of a briefing from my father, who could juggle three balls. From then on I was self-taught—I also learned how to ride the unicycle. It was clearly only a matter of time before I secured my first circus job. This came at the age of sixteen while I was still in high school, working for Patterson Bros. Circus throughout the state of Michigan. They hired me to perform a juggling act with a unicycle finish, performing two or three shows a day on weekends.
After my graduation in the summer of 1958, I joined the Hagen Bros. Circus, somewhat unexpectedly. I showed up early, simply to watch the set-up and observe all the finer details. The bosses noticed me and pestered me to work, but I just wanted to watch. Eventually I gave in and found myself putting up the sideshow tent and banner line. They were pleased with my work and hired me. Further down the road I was juggling fire in conjunction with the sideshow. Eventually, I also juggled clubs in the opening spec on the hippodrome track under the big top.
This was all really the beginning of a period of great personal conflict that lay between my formal education and my life in the circus. I dropped out of college, joined the circus, joined a college, played summer stock and then dropped out of college again. By the time I reached the age of twenty-four I had worked in five circuses and attended just as many colleges. Why? Because I found the circus to be a treasure of culture. College life was, by comparison, boring and uninspiring.
I traveled for half a season with Hunt Bros. Circus, working as a prop man in the circus ring when my parents arrived with a letter from Eloise Berchtold, a renowned animal trainer. I had worked with her earlier in the season and had surprised her when I ran into the ring to fix a malfunctioning prop during her bear act. I was expecting gratitude, but she reprimanded me. It was a highly dangerous thing to do. When there are bears around, you do not run. But clearly my natural show must go on reflex combined with a fearless spirit must have made an indelible impression on Eloise. Now she was making me an offer I simply could not refuse: the chance to work as her cage boy and assistant trainer with her wild animal show at The Toledo Zoo in Ohio.
This brings me back to the polar bears. Eloise had an act that featured a trio of bears including a polar bear named Zero. I had encountered Zero five years earlier with the Paramount Bears at the Medina Temple in Chicago on a trip to the Pollack Circus with my father. Now I was officially working in Toledo alongside Zero.
I cleaned the cages, fed the animals and assisted Eloise in performance. I bonded heavily with Zero and gained her trust. Her diet consisted of distilled water, four tins of prescription dog food and one large head of lettuce every day. I also remember that she simply loved to be hosed down. Before the performance I fed Zero honey while Eloise muzzled her, and later held the motorcycle steady for her to mount it. I wore a thick leather jacket for this, as she always took a swipe at my upper arm—as a matter of routine—before she rode the motorcycle three times counter-clockwise around the ring. These days, of course, exotic animals are banned from circuses in much of America but back then this was not the case. PeTA did not even exist in 1962 and there was no significant public opposition to animals entertaining the public. My impression was that Zero was a very happy bear and I was completely devoted to her wellbeing. The only thing she clearly did not like was riding the motorcycle, and in that respect she made her feelings known. I had, during those few short months in Toledo, formed a deep connection to Zero. A visceral passion.
The story of my time with Zero and my separation from her is the basis of a psychological study that features among the pages of two publications by psychotherapist Dr. Robert U. Akeret: Not By Words Alone (1971) and Tales From a Traveling Couch: A Psychologist Revisits His Most Memorable Patients (1995), later published in the UK as The Man Who Loved a Polar Bear and Other Psychotherapist’s Tales (1996). The latter is a semi-fictionalized account of my case history with certain added embellishments for dramatic effect, but the core of the study is there. The former represents a concise and somewhat more accurate account of my case—at least in as much as I can remember from that period so long ago. Dr. Akeret had my consent to write about it, but in both publications my name and the names of others were changed to respect privacy. Interestingly, he insisted on keeping Zero’s actual name for the books.
Following my stint with Eloise and the bears I traveled throughout Europe, spending very happy days on the streets of London and Paris, giving street performances and busking to pay my way. Naturally, I visited several circuses including Cirque d'Hiver at 110 rue Amelot in Paris, which was used for location shooting on my favorite circus film of all time. Trapeze (1956) starred Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida. It was a film integral to my passion for the circus, which I first glimpsed during my teenage years.
Back in the USA, I was taking a few post-graduate courses at Columbia University, where I met Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, an Italian director, actor, mime and teacher, who became my friend, performance partner and mentor. He arranged for me to work as his teaching assistant at New York University, which marked the beginning of my long career—one hundred semesters—teaching circus techniques. The rest, as they say, is history.
Along the way I mentored several prominent aerialists, jugglers and clowns, in addition to teaching at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. I also spent summers working in circuses across America, including Circus Flora—a yearly tradition for me that continues to this day.
But I have never forgotten Zero and the polar bears and now, years into my formal teaching retirement, my thoughts and passions are turning to these magnificent ice creatures once again.
Now the survival of the polar bear is under serious threat from the effects of global warming and a rapidly changing natural habitat. The life cycle of a polar bear is tied to the sea ice, and the depletion of this ice is the single biggest challenge to their existence. They depend on it to travel, hunt, breed, and in some cases, den. Scientists believe they are unlikely to survive if ice-free periods exceed their ability to fast—220 days—especially in areas that lack prey. There are an estimated 25,000 polar bears living in the wild today, with numbers projected to decline by 30% by 2050. A shocking statistic. But there is still much we can do together.
Whether roaming the wild or living under human care, a polar bear is still a polar bear—whichever way you look at it—and I believe it is our duty to save these beautiful creatures from extinction.
To be sure, when it comes to polar bears under human care, there always will be debates. For example, animal rights groups (AR) may be well intentioned, but animal welfare (AW) groups are better informed. I do my best to be open-minded and not to take sides. Well, I try not to.
Zoos, habitats and aquariums are far more adequate today than they have been in the past. These 21st century multi-million dollar facilities feature deep, chilled pools stocked with live fish — and even sparkling waterfalls. And of course, there is plenty of ice. Under human care, polar bears don’t have to face the same challenges as they do in the wild: a lack of food, the menace of poachers and trophy hunters, or the depletion of sea ice.
The life expectancy of a polar bear in the wild is a maximum of 25 years. Of the 300 or so polar bears under human care throughout the world, they can live as long as 40 years or more. Many zoos stepped up their breeding programs almost as soon as the polar bear was declared a vulnerable species, and in turn encouraged a wellspring of interest and growing awareness in zoo visitors, which is surely no bad thing.
I try to highlight the destiny of the polar bear any way I can. The Polar Bare act, at least to New Yorkers, has helped keep the plight of the polar bear in people’s minds — plus I get to have a helluva good time performing it.
What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It is a region that is warming faster than any other and we are already feeling the effects elsewhere.
Will the polar bears, the planet and humanity survive the effects of climate change? It is up to all of us to answer that question.
There are 19 polar bear populations living wild across the Arctic Circle. More than half live in Canada, with the remainder spread out across Alaska, Russia, Norway and Greenland. Monitoring these communities is a constant challenge but Polar Bears International keeps the rest of us on track with the latest figures, in addition to updates on their own mission to conserve the polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. I wholeheartedly support and endorse their efforts.
See you down the road.
New York City, September 2020.