National Geographic science contributor Dr. Jordan Schaul shares some famous bear tales regarding the international travel of two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed sibling actors.
Occasionally, I interview people in the entertainment industry (link). Among them are famed Hollywood stars making quite a positive impact on animal welfare and wildlife conservation.
This includes addressing concerns that face companion pets, traditional livestock, alternative livestock, feral populations and/or indigenous wildlife species or populations.
I learned that, just over a decade ago, the lifelong animal enthusiasts reached out to help a very distressed bear in a dire situation overseas.
During the Roberts’ 2003 visit to Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, the couple encountered Stepan—a captive Russian brown bear featured as a roadside attraction. Stepan spent most of his life in a very small cage, which was obviously inadequate for a member of the largest carnivore species on Earth.
The Zoo’s curatorial staff was eager to find a companion to help socialize the bear and provide a source of social enrichment. Stepan, incidentally, was renamed “Eric” as a tribute and gesture of appreciation for Mr. Roberts’ contribution to the animal’s much improved situation.
The Rostov Zoo is one of the largest zoos in Russia with a captive population of more than 5000 animals, representing more than 400 species. Polar bears and Kamchatka brown bears are among some of the Rostrov Zoo’s recent, and presumably current, ursine residents. I did not learn the fate of Stepan (“Eric”), but more than likely the bear was an illegally poached cub from the Kamchatka Peninisula.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, bears of Kamchatka, which rival Alaska’s Kodiak Island brown bears for largest size among ursids (bears), have been vanishing.
The unfortunate demise of Russia’s most impressive brown bear subspecies was reported by Wildlife Conservation Society bear biologist Gleb Raygorodetsky for National Geographic Magazine’s February 2006 issue.
The article titled “Russia’s Giant Bears” featured here on the NGS website describes the plight of bears of the Kamchatka Peninsula and their disappearance due in part to continued poaching and trophy hunting in the Russian Far East.
Described as “Giants under Siege” —the article states that “After the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the brown bear population of the Kamchatka Peninsula.”
Unfortunately, with few exceptions bears are disappearing everywhere.
Actor Eric Roberts’s sister, actress Julia Roberts, seemed to also have quite the affinity for bears, as demonstrated by her family’s visit to a sloth bear rescue facility while on a 2009 trip to India. Evidently, she and her family learned quite a bit concerning the implications of poaching and the plight of wild bears in this part of South Asia.
While in Bangalore, India, Julia, her husband, cameraman Danny Moder and their children received a sneak peak at some bears at Wildlife SOS’s Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre. The couple was specifically introduced to a seven year-old male sloth bear.
“The bear had just been rescued from a life where he was forced to dance on the streets,” said Wildlife SOS CEO Kartick Satyanarayan. “Our staff spent the day with Julia and Danny and their three children. We invited her to name the bear and she chose to name him Odum—a family name.”
Odum is now nearly 10 or 11 years old and although he suffered from malnourishment as a cub and has stunted growth and a bit of an awkward gait, as a consequence, he is otherwise a normal sloth bear.
According to my colleague Dr. Arun, the Veterinary Director for Wildlife SOS, “Odum receives vitamin supplements to his staple diet and is otherwise healthy and enjoying himself playing with three other rescued sloth bears in their expansive enclosure.”
According to the April 2009 issue of OPEN magazine:
“Roberts explained to her three kids how ‘bad men had taken baby bear away from mother bear to perform tricks’. The kids, of course, were delighted when Odum snuck his hand out of his shelter and played with all of them. “Odum is the newest member of our family, and we will definitely visit him the next time we are visiting India,” said the email.”
Wildlife SOS manages nine rescue facilities iunder the auspices of the India state Forest Departments for native fauna. Animals at their rescue centers include bears, elephants, big cats, as well as miscellaneous species of birds and mammals native to India and the subcontinent.
Some of the animals that Wildlife SOS services are in need of lifelong care, while others require only temporary care before they are released back into the wild. Among permanent residents are hundreds a former dancing street bears like Odum. These sloth bears exploited for money as a part of some local practices have faced overt neglect and abuse for almost their entire lives.
Many of these poached bears were rendered blind or otherwise disabled from their first experiences in captivity.
Although many of the rescued bears may be compromised in some psychological or physical regard, many would be good candidates for release into the wild. That is if they were not already habituated to people.
Many of the captive sloth bears are fairly gentle, but wild sloth bears are notorious for being highly protective of their dens and cubs.
The likelihood of confronting tigers in areas where both species attempt to coexist requires that sloth bears be capable of putting up a good fight.
Behavioral biologists suspect that the disposition of wild sloth bears can be attributed to their coexistence with several other carnivore species besides tigers. These primarily include hyenas and leopards. In some places they overlap in range with Asiatic black bears.
Just last week, Wildlife SOS in collaboration with the the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, released a robust male sloth bear back into the wild, as I reported in this article.
As the largest animal welfare and conservation organization in India and all of South Asia, Wildlife SOS holds the largest number of sloth bears in captivity, and actually the largest number of bears of any species at their Agra Bear Rescue Facility north of their Bangalore Bear Rescue Center.
To learn more about Wildlife SOS’s rescue programs for former dancing sloth bears cared for at their Agra Bear Rescue Facility (Agra, India) and Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre (Bangalore, India), please read this earlier National Geographic News post—”Wildlife SOS-India Nearly Extinguishes a 400 Year-Old Practice of Dancing Bears.“
Dr. Jordan Schaul is a Los Angeles-based scientist and writer. He is an associate conservation biologist with various NGO’s and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Here is Jordan’s Full Bio.