One of the ivanovo captive polar bears in 2014
During 2014: Bolshoi Circus, prospekti Vernadskogo, 7, Moscow, Russia, 119296
During 2016: Ivanovo Circus, Prospekt Lenina, 42, Ivanovo, Ivanovo Oblast, Russia, 153002
During 2019: Kazan Circus, Ploshchad’ Tysyacheletiya, 2, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia, 420202
2014: +7 495 930-03-00
2016: +7 493 241 60 13
2019: +7 843 222-57-58
Exhibit: “Polar Bear Show”
Dora (female) born in the wild probably in 1999, captured in 2001.
Knopka (female) born in the wild probably in 1999, captured in 2001.
Motya (female) born in the wild probably in 1999, captured in 2001.
Umlea (aka Umka) (female) born in the wild probably in 1999, captured in 2001.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country as large as Russia, this group of polar bears has been hard to keep track of. During 2019 the four bears were part of a show called “Iceberg”, in 2016 it was the “Polar Bear Show” and in 2014 probably “Bears on Ice”. The common denominators are the four female bears and their handlers Yulia Denisenko and Yuriy Khokhlov.
While we have found evidence of performances in Moscow in 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Ivanovo in 2016 and Kazan in 2019 (and probably late 2018) it seems certain that the “troupe” has continually traveled around Russia from 2002 up to the present.
The four bears were captured in Franz Josef Land, Russia in 2001. Yulia Denisenko has stated that a permit had been issued authorising the hunt for specimen bears to be captured alive. A ten day search, using a helicopter, culminated with the capture of the four young female bears, believed to have been born two years earlier and probably having just naturally broken up with their mothers. Denisenko has claimed that the bears had been “abandoned”.
The bears are constantly touring and are housed in small transportation cages. It is reported that the travel cages are little larger than the bears and that they have no floors, meaning the bears have to balance on metal bars. Knopka has been seen with bald spots on her head where she rubs this on the bars of her cage. The bears wear metal wire muzzles while performing and also, it is assumed, when backstage.
Diet is reported to consist of fish, beef, bread, apples, eggs, biscuits, chocolate and condensed milk.
Stereotypical behaviour is, not surprisingly, frequent and includes swaying, pacing, rubbing against and chewing cage bars.
The bears performances include skating on ice, sliding their bodies along ice, standing on their hind legs, “singing” into microphones, pushing Denishenko over the ice in a sled, and “playing” a variety of musical instruments.
In 2019 we worked with photographer Kirsten Luce to try and track down the bears for an article in National Geographic magazine. They were found in Kazan and you can see some of Kirsten’s photographs of the bears here and the full article here (both open in new windows). One of the photographs won an award in the 2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award.
- Bears forced to perform completely contrary to their natural instincts
- Unacceptable, severely cramped accommodation and repeated transportation between sites
- Inappropriate and unhealthy diet
- Stereotypical behaviours
- No known enrichment or exercise regimes
- No record of qualified, expert medical supervision or treatments
- Admitted (by Denishenko) use of violence in training
These bears are probably around 20 years old (as of winter 2019/2020) and it is time to retire them to enjoy their final years in a sanctuary where they can live far more natural lives. You can find a petition to free the four bears here (opens in new window).
The video below shows a 2014 performance at the Bolshoi circus.