Ursula and the two bears

Kenny and Boris were stars in East Germany, says Imre Karacs. But with the State Circus gone, nobody wants them
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The Independent Online
KENNY AND BORIS miss the Cold War. Before the Wall fell, they were feted as stars in the former East Germany, had secure jobs, a roof over their heads, their picture on stamps and, as members of a privileged elite, were even allowed to travel to the West. They did, after all, earn hard currency for the people's economy. Now they are unemployed and destitute.

Kenny, aged 14, and Boris, 13, are the last polar bears of the once illustrious State Circus of the German Democratic Republic. They had travelled the world in the company of their trainer, Ursula Bottcher, leaning down and touching her lips with theirs twice a day. That was the act, the Kiss of Death, which held audiences from Japan to the United States enthralled. In the US she won a Circus Oscar for her daring performance.

Now the two animals live in a caravan at the edge of East Berlin, awaiting eviction. At the end of this month, the winter quarters of the circus will be wound up. Then Kenny and Boris must hit the road.

Theirs is a classic tale of grandeur and decline. "When the GDR went kaputt, the West Germans gave us no more money," Ms Bottcher recalls. The circus went bust, the animals and their trainers had to fend for themselves.

The polar bears adjusted well to free-market economics, selling their services to commercial circus troupes all over the world. But then the animal-lovers entered the stage, along with an accountant hired to wind up the remaining assets of the state circus.

Kurt-Christian Knischewski's job was to get rid of 85 circus animals and clear the hundreds of acres of prime real estate for a quick sale. He has done well. The dancing zebras, donkeys and leopards have all found new homes, and the last two elephants will soon be on their way to Blackpool zoo.

Kenny and Boris, though, are proving more difficult to shift because few zoos want polar bears, and those that do want them to produce little polar bears. Kenny and Boris are eunuchs.

Ms Bottcher says she had circus contracts for the two bears until well into next year. But that was not an acceptable solution. "Animal welfare authorities are concerned that animals are often not treated properly at circuses," says Mr Knischewski. "Frau Bottcher has had terrible problems with animal welfare groups."

Last summer, Ms Bottcher had sought a retirement home for her polar bears, and found one at a safari park near Alicante. A swimming pool awaited Kenny and Co there, she says, and she was all set to move to Spain so that she could keep in touch with her animals in her twilight years.

But Mr Knischewski intervened again. When Ms Bottcher turned up at the winter quarters one morning in September, she found the bears decanted into separate cages, on their way to other zoos. Mr Knischewski says he was unimpressed with the facilities in Alicante, and the safari park failed to guarantee that the polar bears would never perform again in a circus.

He has found another home in Spain for them - at Madrid Zoo - and that should be the end of the polar bears' odyssey. But Ms Bottcher, who will never work again, suspects a political plot. "We were the last act," she says. "The western Germans don't like to see anything good surviving from the GDR. They want to make us disappear."

So just what do you do with a polar bear who needs a new home? The idea of sending a 1,500lb furry beast designed for the Arctic Circle to a city where the summer temperature can hit 50C seems at best bizarre, at worst cruel.In Madrid the bears will almost certainly suffer the behavioural affliction of many large carnivores in captivity. Known as "zoochosis", it is characterised by a swaying of the head and pacing up and down in a trance-like state, as if suffering from boredom.

"I'm not aware of any collection where the polar bears don't exhibit stereotypical behaviour," said Tim Thomas, senior scientific officer with the RSPCA. "It is a real dilemma in this case and the future is pretty bleak for them." He added, however, that the bears would adapt quite well to the heat, as long as they had access to a cold water pool.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals believes moving the bears to the zoo is perhaps the kindest option, though far from ideal. "You cannot release polar bears bred in captivity back into the wild," said Philip Wilson of the WSPA. "They just don't have the skills to survive.

There are four WSPA sanctuaries in Europe for former dancing bears, but nothing for polar bears. "Even state-of-the-art zoos cannot recreate their environment," said Mr Wilson. "In the wild, polar bears roam for hundreds of miles."